China’s seemingly newfound expansionist policies are heavily rooted in history.
In contrast with Western powers, China has historically taken a narrower approach to geopolitics, one that seldom extended beyond its borders.
This Sinocentric view is characteristic of the country’s sheer scale and multiformity. China’s borders surround a state as vast and varied as that of the whole Asian continent.
Though presented internationally as a cohesive state, China is, in actuality, a congregation of nations, each with its own cultural, cultural and economic characteristics.
And whereas the sizeable European Plain can accommodate Europe’s competing powers, the Chinese heartland makes up less than one-third of its entire area, and as such doesn’t lend itself to such coexistence.
China’s Heartland Theory
The strongest of China competing groups periodically ascend from the disorder to bring the nation under a united government. Each dynasty, whether Han, Mongol or Manchu, followed a resemblant route in power, with few exceptions. Up until the 10th century, political power was concentrated mostly in the Guanzhong Plain. The hub of influence ultimately drifted eastward as the North China Plain took on increased economic and cultural significance, connect up with the rich Yangtze Plain. As the empire’s expanded further to the north and east, the North China Plain’s prominence grew.
The Yangtze Plain, by contrast, generated dynasties that instantly succumbed either to their weaknesses, like the Southern Song in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries or to their northerly competitors like the short-lived nationalist government did in the twentieth century.
Regardless of how power shifted across China’s territory, contention for the Central Plains (Zhongyuan) was central to every dynastic administration. The country’s diverse factions understood that control of the heartland would give them control over the territory. This principle was laid out by British economic theorist Halford Mackinder in his “Heartland Theory.”
China’s current geopolitical strategists would take this theory a step further. This belief guided the nation through generations of unification, expansion, fragmentation, and decline, prescribing an approach for handling each phase in the cycle.
At times of dynastic corrosion and rebellion, for example, defense and military strategy had been the answer for aspiring leaders. Furthermore, interregional links like the Grand Canal and military incursions in the broader region helped a dynasty secure its “mandate of heaven,” or the legitimacy as emperor.
At the same time, auxiliary tiers of bureaucratic authorities within the expand the ruler’s control from the heartland to the rest of China, and beyond. Utilizing a tributary system of appointed officials and, in rare circumstances, military forces, China’s leaders were able to diffuse their power throughout Central Asia, into the Korean Peninsula, and Southeast Asia, reaffirming their rule of the heartland, the nation, and the world as they saw it.
China’s Brief History as a Maritime Power
During the seventeenth century, however, the onset of the maritime era would interrupt China’s illusions of being a solitary realm. Naval invaders began arriving on the nation’s shore, where the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, would eventually meet them.
Although the Manchu possessed what Mackinder called the “superior mobility of horsemen and camelmen,” their approach to repelling invasions was no different from that of the ethnically Han rulers that preceded them. Where the Han Ming dynasty constructed the Great Wall to protect against the Manchu, the Qing erected fortifications along the shoreline to keep invaders at bay.
China had yet to develop naval assets of its own, and its conceptualization of geopolitics would not expand to account for maritime power for three centuries. Even then, the geostrategic implications of robust naval power would garner little notice within China before Japan used their superior naval power to triumph the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95.
China’s defeat marked the beginning of another era of fragmentation in the Middle Kingdom, and the termination of the Sinocentric strategy. It took the so-called “century of humiliation” for China to comprehend that this worldview was no longer possible.
The broader geopolitical strategy which prevailed in the West did not serve the European powers far better. After fighting for control of the Eurasian landmass, what Mackinder dubbed the World Island, they emerged from two world wars and innumerable smaller conflicts only to see that the center of international power had moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
As maritime and land-based powers (the U.S. and the Soviet Union) expanded their spheres of influence across the globe, the combination of territory on the border of the Eurasian landmass and a shoreline seemed to sentence China to be on the margins of the international system.
Nevertheless, under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, China overcame its geographical circumstances, and in the process, its reasoning has evolved. The trials and tribulations it suffered through in the second half of the twentieth century, including the wars on the Korean Peninsula and in Vietnam, a U.S. naval blockade, along with simultaneous pressure from the Soviet Union, encouraged China to realize its own capabilities. The geography that once seemed a curse to Chinese theorists now brimmed with possibility.
The country’s location, in the end, provides it access to developed economies overseas and overland access to precious energy assets in Central Asia and the Middle East, an edge that economic theorist Nicholas Spykman identified in the early 1940s. China’s geopolitical goal was now to tap into wealth in the east, and technological advancement in the west, as stated by Chinese scholar Zhang Wenmu.
Sure enough, China’s position has enabled the country to ascend to the status of a Great Power. An unprecedented concentration on naval development in the 2000s helped China construct a forcible fleet to project its power. In the years since its geopolitical theorists have turned their focus on roads and rail transportation as another channel for the country’s ascendancy.
The Belt and Road Initiative combines both tactics, resuscitative the land and Sea Routes of the old silk road to couple China to the European continent. Despite its focus on infrastructure development, the plan goes beyond economic or diplomatic strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative is China’s plan to enlarge its “empire” to adhere to its modern geopolitical theory.
Contemporary Chinese Foreign Policy
Beijing comprehends the significance of restraint. As it has done throughout history, China is embarking on an expansionary course more out of necessity than out of ambition. The “One Belt, One Road” initiative, for instance, aims to ease the country’s economic and logistical dependence on its eastern coast and also develop its desolated interior regions.
Similarly, Beijing’s assertive maritime policy is another attempt to secure its access to overseas markets and preclude a challenger from presenting a threat to its multiplying global interests. There are risks, however, to China’s increasingly aggressive expansionism.
China will attempt to outmaneuver these risks wherever possible. As it does, however, the nation will inevitably wind up extending its reach even further and encountering new dangers on the way.
China’s expansionist geopolitical theory is one that will yield unpredictable results after hundreds of years spent in the service of a mostly self-contained strategy.
However, if the West continues to fail to provide a viable alternative to counter China’s visions of Eurasian hegemony, China will find it increasingly easier to rewrite the rules of global trade and security.