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5 Maps That Explain China's Strategy

The sharp decline in Chinese stock markets a few months ago is a reminder of two things.

The first is the continued fragility of the Chinese market. The second is that any economic dysfunction has political implications, both in Chinese domestic and foreign policy.

This, in turn, will affect Chinese economic performance. It is essential, therefore, to understand Chinese national strategy.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been portrayed as an increasingly aggressive country prepared to challenge the United States.

At the same time, aside from relatively minor forays into the South and East China Seas, China has avoided significant involvement in the troubles roiling in the rest of Eurasia.

There is a gap between what is generally expected of China and what China actually does.

To understand China's strategy, it is helpful to follow the logic inherent in the following five maps.

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5 Maps That Explain China's Strategy

  1. 1. 5 Maps That Explain China’s Strategy
  2. 2. The People’s Republic of China has always been portrayed as an increasingly aggressive country prepared to challenge the United States.
  3. 3. At the same time, China has avoided significant involvement in the troubles roiling in the rest of Eurasia.
  4. 4. In other words, there is a gap between what is generally expected of China and what China actually does.
  5. 5. To understand what China’s actual national strategy is, let’s look at the following five maps.
  6. 6. Half of China Is Inhabited by Ethnic Groups That Resisted Chinese Domination
  7. 7. First, we need to make a distinction between two Chinas.
  8. 8. There is the China—with its international borders—we see on maps.
  9. 9. But there is also the China inhabited by the Han Chinese, the main Chinese ethnic group.
  10. 10. Han China is surrounded within China by regions populated by other nations, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria.
  11. 11. These four regions are a buffer around China, providing strategic depth to repel invaders.
  12. 12. All four, however, resisted Chinese domination, as Tibet and Xinjiang still do today.
  13. 13. The Rainfall Line Roughly Defines What We Think of as the Chinese
  14. 14. A very similar geography emerges when we look at rainfall patterns.
  15. 15. The line, called the 15-inch Isohyet, separates the area in the east that receives enough rainfall to maintain an agricultural economy.
  16. 16. As a result, the majority of Chinese live in this area, while non-Han Chinese regions in the west are lightly inhabited or uninhabited.
  17. 17. That means the Chinese population is crowded into a much smaller area and is farther from its neighbors.
  18. 18. SUBSCRIBE George Friedman provides unbiased assessment of the global outlook in his free publication, This Week in Geopolitics. Subscribe now and get an in-depth view of the forces that will drive events and investors in the next year, decade, or even a century from now. Subscribe here
  19. 19. Most Chinese Wealth Is Concentrated 200 Miles from the Coast
  20. 20. The economic difference between China’s coastal region and the rest of China is striking.
  21. 21. Economically, only the coast is above the median. Every other area is below it.
  22. 22. Over 650 million Chinese citizens live in households earning less than $4 a day, according to World Bank data.
  23. 23. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of these people live outside the coastal region.
  24. 24. The China that most Westerners think about is the thin strip along the coast.
  25. 25. The rest (500–1,000 miles west), however, is a land of Han Chinese living in Third World poverty.
  26. 26. China’s Biggest Threat Is Itself
  27. 27. China’s southern border consists of the Himalayas in the west and hilly jungle country in the east.
  28. 28. It is impossible to conduct major military operations in the Himalayas and a nightmare to fight in hilly jungles of southeast Asia.
  29. 29. To the north, China is bordered by Siberia, which no country has ever tried to invade or mount an invasion from.
  30. 30. Except for the Pacific Coast, China is secure and contained.
  31. 31. Therefore, China’s primary strategic interest is maintaining the territorial integrity of China from internal threats.
  32. 32. If it lost control of Tibet or Xinjiang, China’s borders would move far east, the buffer for Han China would disappear, and then China would face a strategic crisis.
  33. 33. China Has Only One External Strategic Interest—the Seas to the East
  34. 34. China has vital maritime interests built around global trade, but the problem is the sea lanes are under American control.
  35. 35. China’s coastal seas are surrounded by archipelagos of island states with narrow passages between them.
  36. 36. These passages could be easily closed at will by the US Navy.
  37. 37. China currently lacks resources to build a navy that could match the US, so the country is buying time by trying to appear more capable than it is.
  38. 38. The Chinese will maintain this posture until it has the time and resources to close the gap.
  39. 39. In summary, China has three strategic imperatives. Two internal and one external.
  40. 40. First, it must maintain control over Xinjiang and Tibet. Second, it must preserve the regime and prevent regionalism.
  41. 41. And last, it must find a solution to its enclosure in the East and South China Seas.
  42. 42. China’s strategic priority now, however, is internal stability. And that defines everything else China does.
  43. 43. SUBSCRIBE George Friedman provides unbiased assessment of the global outlook in his free publication, This Week in Geopolitics. Subscribe now and get an in-depth view of the forces that will drive events and investors in the next year, decade, or even a century from now. Subscribe here

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