Chinese Geography

Frank Jacobs at New York Times has a great blog post about the long-dispute border area where China, North Korea, and Russia meet.

As I was reading the account of how the current border where the three countries meet came to be, I was reminded several historical features of China’s geopolitical that compare unfavorably with the United States comparatively boring position on the glob.  With the constant chatter of China’s ascendancy as a great power, it may reassure the U.S. that China’s geographic position match with China’s stated medium-term military and security interests.  China has repeatedly avowed that they are concerned only with power in their East Asian neighborhood, and are not interested in global power projection.  Besides matching China’s current military capability, their geography shows why China probably does not covertly seek to project power outside of their Asian neighborhood.

First, the dispute between Russia and China over the border point where they meet with North Korea was only resolved in 1992.  Likewise, on the opposite side of China, India and Pakistan has a long-standing border dispute.  All of the border disputes along China’s periphery force China to focus their resources, both diplomatic and military, on securing their claims along their periphery. 

Moreover, over the course of history, China has had a series of invasions from its neighbors across its borders.  To name just one: the Mongol invasion that ended in 1278 is probably the most infamous, although the invaders were quickly sinicized, leading to the Yuan Dynasty that lasted a century.

Finally, China in the 21st century is sandwiched between two other great powers: India and Russia, to the south and north.  Two other nuclear powers lie to the east and west: Japan and Pakistan.  The shift of capital from the West to the East is fueled by many fast-growing industrial states.  The power shift follows the capital, because of the large number of already powerful states.  China, in the center of East Asia, benefits enormously from its economic ties to states across the region.  That this same geographic position that bolsters its commercial interests comes with the price of increased security concerns is predictable yet also potentially troublesome.  China borders four nuclear states with a fifth across the Sea of Japan.

This history contrasts sharply with the superior security geographic position the United States occupies.  The United States borders two countries in contrast to the fourteen that border China.  Likewise, neither has ever been a political rival or had aspirations to great power status.  Neither country can change its geographic position, so these characteristics are structural, and something to keep in the back of your head when discussing U.S.-Sino power relations.

Chinese Geography