The article below was published in the Spring 2018 edition of Active Measures, IWP’s student journal.
Contemporary scholarship of international relations commonly promotes the idea of Chinese power ascendancy and the subsequent erosion of U.S. primacy. These analyses regularly ignore geography in great-power calculations. Where the United States is blessed with abundant geographic benefits and distance from powerful competitors, China suffers from its adjacency to three great-power rivals. These relationships stand to inhibit Beijing’s aspirations of regional hegemony. While China’s rise will likely continue for many years, this growth will cause greater consternation among its powerful neighbors. This paper details China’s geographic relationship with Russia, India, and Japan and how geopolitics may be a strong catalyst for Beijing’s containment.
China’s geographic location is particularly inhibitive of hegemonic ascendancy. To its north lies Russia, a great power with which China has skirmished, received threats of nuclear annihilation, and remains locked in an unspoken war for influence in Central Asia. To the south lies India, a “nearly-power” who competes directly with Beijing’s attempts to swoon Asian states and with whom China has warred over disputed territory that has disrupted its expansion in the Indian Ocean Region. To the east lies Japan, an age-old rival state, who slaughtered 15 to 20 million Chinese throughout World War II, occupied swathes of Chinese dynastic territory for nearly half a century, acted as one of the primary antagonists during the ‘Century of Humiliation,’ and remains defiantly anti-Chinese to this day. Beyond China’s immediate periphery lies its greatest competitor, the United States. Washington has constructed a barrier of containment around China, locking Beijing within the First Island Chain. The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet and local allies are stronger than the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The United States regularly denounces Chinese initiatives of territorial expansion in the South China Sea via the use of freedom of navigation operations, which aim to condemn Chinese disputed claims.
These relationships are not destined for eternal tension and belligerence. Chinese President Xi Jinping has gone to great lengths to partner with Russia on a variety of fronts. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, formed in 2001, continues to emphasize mutual Russian and Chinese economic interests in Central Asia. The PLAN and Russian Navy underwent inaugural joint military exercises in the Baltic Sea in 2017. Beijing and India’s relationship remains rocky, but dialogue continues with President Xi declaring the existence of “healthy and stable” ties between the two states in the aftermath of the 2017 Doklam Incident. The Sino-Japanese relationship has shown improvement with Council on Foreign Relations fellow, Berkshire Miller, stating that President Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe “have taken some incremental steps to stabilize their troubled relations,” despite the uncertain security tensions between the two states. And although many prominent foreign policy pundits and scholars have prophesied coming conflict between China and the United States since the end of the Cold War, bilateral relations remain cordial even in the face of many diplomatic crises, such as the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade or China’s continued flagrance of North Korean sanctions. This indicates that Beijing inhabits a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by opposing nuclear powers, but is looking to maintain peace in support of its hegemonic goals. Ultimately, China will be constrained by its neighboring powers. U.S. efforts will only exasperate that containment.
Based on the assumption of a ‘rising China,’ Beijing’s neighbors continue to react to its regional development. Although many experts and the Chinese Foreign Ministry are proclaiming the beginning of a ‘Chinese Century,’ the Middle Kingdom’s geographical location leaves many peripheral powers that do not directly benefit from a rising China worried about Beijing’s expansionism. It is highly unlikely that these peripheral states will form any cohesive balancing coalition, but they will likely, separately and unofficially, work towards hedging the forthcoming hegemonic power in their midst. Russia, India, and Japan all stand to lose in the shadow of a dominant China and are making moves to prevent its Asian hegemony.
The Bear and the Dragon
Russia and China appear to be wholly divergent nation-states. Russia developed out of Byzantine historical roots—China rose from a uniquely Asian system. The former includes many diverse and populated ethnic groups and the latter, while encompassing a large population, is primarily one ethnicity. The Russian cultural and national identity is very young in comparison to its Sino-neighbor, whose dynasties have existed for more than two millennia. Russia’s economic power is driven, to a large extent, by oil and natural gas—China’s economy is much more diverse. Furthermore, Russia’s economy continues to flounder while China’s moves at breakneck speed. Central Asia, the battleground of influence between the two powers, remains firmly entrenched in Russian culture, but continues to receive an overwhelming amount of Chinese financial capital.
Nonetheless, China and Russia share striking similarities. Adda Bozeman’s assessment of the unitary leadership of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ and her explanation of Byzantium’s marriage of state and religious power drive the modern leadership of both nations’ strongmen. Both appear to be interested in controlling Halford John Mackinder’s Heartland. This region, comprising Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Russian steppe, according to Mackinder, “commands the world.” However, considering the twenty-first century advancements in transportation and China’s proclamation of the ‘Eurasian century,’ the concept of ‘who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,’ should be revised to ‘who rules Central Asia commands the Heartland,’ which correctly codifies both powers’ silent war of influence in Central Asia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping also share a willingness to employ military forces over the expansion of territory. Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria are Russian contemporary examples. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the South China Sea, and Doklam are Chinese examples, although international criticism has been limited when compared to equitable Russian actions. This is not due to a lack of China’s desire for expansion. It is likely rooted in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) lack of military experience beyond its borders since its founding in 1949.
Geography also inhibits future Russo-Sino cooperation. With 4,200 kilometers of shared border, China and Russia share the sixth longest border in the world. Making matters worse, the border mostly comprises open steppe and rivers. Continental powers have historically shown greater proclivity to conflict, especially with great power neighbors. This geography has betrayed relations between Moscow and Beijing in the past. In 1969, skirmishes along the Ussuri River led to open military conflict between the two states. During several months of fighting, both sides tallied up more than 300 casualties. Furthermore, during the crisis, Russia was prepared to launch nuclear weapons against China. Nuclear war would have likely broken out between the two powers had Henry Kissinger not intervened. In a critical phone call, the former U.S. Secretary of State informed the Soviet ambassador in Washington, D.C. that the United States would retaliate to the use of Soviet nuclear weapons by annihilating 130 Soviet cities. As a result, the Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev backed down, but the Sino-Soviet relationship was so strained that a nuclear apocalypse was a realistic possibility. This reality has remained in the recesses of the minds of Russian and Chinese leaders. The two neighboring states, while striving for regional hegemony, share one of the largest, most open borders in the world. This open geography will continue to prevent a closer allegiance between both powers.
Although there are clear geographic and imperial reasons that China and Russia will remain hostile towards one another, the Communist Party of China (CPC) continues to promote growing ties between both states. The Russian-Chinese relationship is now “as close as lips and teeth,” according to China’s ambassador in Moscow. This same phrase was used by Mao Zedong to describe China and North Korea’s relationship during the 1950s. There is, however, good reason to remain skeptical about this propaganda. The United States remains the largest offshore threat to both China and Russia. Over the past two decades, the United States has overextended itself in Middle Eastern wars and suffered from the Great Recession. These realities have presented ample opportunities for rival states to coalesce against the unipolar power and pursue the basic tenets of balance of power theory—but they did not. There were no effective attempts from both states to bilaterally eject the United States and its influence from the peripheral regions of Eurasia. This demonstrates that China and Russia fear a greater threat to their domestic security and global influence from each other than a distant enemy across the Pacific.
Lastly, Russia and China share membership in many regional organizations focusing on Eurasian issues—the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the BRICS, the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and others. These organizations strive to align or unite member economic and military interests in the region and around the world. For example, the SCO is mainly an anti-terrorism union focused on combatting Islamic and nationalist terrorists in Central Asia and Western China, although it was founded to resolve Central Asian border disputes. There have been bilateral and multilateral military exercises in the regions between China, Russia, and other SCO member states. Furthermore, there have been lengthy conversations about counterinsurgency strategy and economic and infrastructure projects in the region under SCO direction. Nonetheless, terrorism in the region has not diminished, and in some ways, has been exacerbated. Furthermore, economic unions like the BRI and the EEU have worked to align economic interests in the region. Both focus on economic development and improving standards of living, but despite the inordinate influx of capital into the region over the past several years, little has changed. These organizations, although touted as successful operations, have made little impact in Central Asia. The pervasiveness of Russian culture and Chinese investment has barely benefited the Central Asian states. Beyond this region, the BRICS, which aligns developing countries to counter the strong arm of the West, has failed to challenge liberal economic hegemony. The BRICS botched this objective due to the constant jockeying over influential leadership of the organization. China, Russia, and India, to a certain extent, have been vying to lead the group at the cost of sabotaging the influential development of their rival partners.
Ultimately, China and Russia are economically, demographically, socially, and militarily different. Their disparate goals continue to hinder the opportunities for a potential partnership. Although Chinese diplomats claim Russia and China have deeper relations, history since the collapse of the Soviet Union proves otherwise. China’s hegemonic challenge against the American unipolarity remains unachievable due to Russia’s geopolitical proximity, difference, and competition.
Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is causing great consternation in New Delhi. The last decade has seen China’s influence circumscribe India. Bhutan remains India’s only close ally in the region. Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka have all moved into China’s sphere of influence, primarily due to the influx of capital investment into these states through BRI. These investments are alarming not only because of the accompanying pervasiveness of Chinese influence, but also because of the increase in clandestine military infrastructure. In 2014, a Chinese submarine underwent a routine stopover in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. This marked the first time China used a wholly commercial harbor to restock and refuel a PLAN ship. Indian military analysts were extremely concerned with a top Indian naval commander opining, “If the Chinese military can use a civilian facility, then is that facility still civilian or military?” This was a valid question and reveals how similar Chinese actions have continued to upend the security dynamic of South Asia. Hambantota is not the only port near India within China’s ‘String of Pearls.’ Chittagong, Bangladesh; Gwadar, Pakistan; and Colombo, Sri Lanka are three major ports within India’s immediate circumference currently undergoing major reformation from Chinese capital and influence. This geographic noose is rapidly eroding the already weak Sino-Indian relations.
From India’s perspective, China-Pakistan relations remain the most threatening. China initially promised to invest USD 46 billion in infrastructure throughout the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with a recent expansion to USD 62 billion in early 2017. To date, this is not only the largest amount of financial assistance that China has promised to any of India’s neighbors, but also the largest nation-level investments in the BRI. For China, CPEC is a promising geopolitical region because better infrastructure will minimize Chinese dependence on natural resource transportation through the Malacca Straits, which remains a salient security concern to the CPC. For Delhi, the project is alarming, since it crosses partly through Kashmir, a hotly contested region between India and Pakistan. This new Chinese-constructed, yet Pakistani-owned infrastructure will cement Islamabad’s claims over the contested region. Not only does this move weaken India’s geopolitical position, but it also distances Delhi from the Central Asian states where Indian influence attempts to hedge Chinese expansionism. India is not idling patiently during CPEC construction. Pakistani intelligence authorities allege that New Delhi funded insurgents to cross into Baluchistan in 2016 with the intent of disrupting and sabotaging CPEC construction. If such allegations are true, India, a nation not known for clandestine activity, will have actively attempted to counteract Pakistani strength and expanding Chinese influence. Given the Indo-Pakistani rivalry over the past several decades and New Delhi’s growing fear of Chinese dominance, India continues to harbor growing concerns over the expanding Beijing-Islamabad relations.
India’s concern over China’s growing influence and belligerence is not without cause. Over the past 60 years, Beijing and New Delhi have had numerous confrontations over disputed territory encompassing 100,000 square kilometers. From the Nathu La and Cho La clashes in 1967 to multiple Sino-Indian skirmishes over the Sumdorong Chu Valley to the Doklam incident in mid-2017, China and India have not come to a mutual agreement over border delineation. Although the PLA outclasses the Indian Armed Forces (IAF) in nearly every measure, New Delhi has been able to maintain border positions and deter Chinese adventurism. Recently, during the Doklam incident, China and India mutually decided to disengage from the confrontation that consisted of hand-to-hand brawling and stone-throwing. Although there were reasons for both nations to disengage, the mutuality of the agreement profited India, given its military disadvantage. For most of Sino-Indian history, conflicts between the two nations have occurred in the untenable, mountainous terrain of the Himalayas. This hostile geographic region deterred army movements and assisted in maintaining peace. Over the past several years, however, Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean have prompted another theater of rivalry and potential area for combat, further threatening Indian security. India remains concerned over the northern Sino-Indian Himalayan border, but now must also face Chinese influence on its other cardinal peripheries, which are not as easily restricted by impregnable geography.
Indian cultural history emphasizes New Delhi’s potential strategy and strong reasoning for combatting Chinese hegemony. Chanakaya, an ancient Indian philosopher, argued that a concentric policy was the best means of defending the state in his treatise, Arthashastra. The theory recommended pitting distant enemies against adjacent foes. In this way, they would destroy one another and leave India to pursue its peaceful interests. Culturally and historically, India has not considered war as an honorable course of action, but markedly an act of self-preservation. In modern application, this would require pitting distant powers against adjacent enemies to deter conflict. During the Cold War, New Delhi was a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement and maintained positive bilateral relations with the Soviet Union, which further deterred Chinese aggression, especially after the 1967 border war between India and China. Although New Delhi cannot take credit for the fracturing relationship between Moscow and Beijing during that period, the Ussuri River skirmishes and threats of nuclear annihilation between the two great powers certainly played to India’s advantage. Since Russia’s political and military power has comparatively diminished since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States now plays the deterrent role to Chinese bellicosity. Beijing cannot deploy sufficient military capabilities to wholly overpower the Indian Armed Forces (IAF) because the United States remains militarily engaged with China over issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea. India is heavily incentivized to pit China against its strong, distant neighbor, and in doing so passes the buck of great power balancing to slow Chinese hegemonic development. That is exactly what New Delhi is trying to accomplish.
Japan and the East Asian Waterways
China’s rocky relations with Russia and India pale in comparison to its nationalistic rivalry with Japan. The history of Sino-Japanese relations is fraught with violence. Due to this history, nationalistic and ethnic tensions have remained high and have often culminated in bilateral crises. Luckily, geographic factors have inhibited the aggressive behavior between the two nations. Nonetheless, Japan and China are only separated by a brief stretch of sea, and both continue to contest the other’s great-power ambitions.
Early 20th century Chinese history is saturated with Japanese invasion, occupation, and atrocities. From the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 and 1895 to the expulsion of Japanese forces after Imperial Japan’s defeat in 1945, the frequent conflicts totaled more than 25 million Chinese civilian and military deaths. The Japanese utilized Chinese resources to continue their war efforts, which increased the number of Chinese casualties. This era of 50 years of war and occupation coupled with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in the late nineteenth century became known as the ‘Century of Humiliation,’ during which the Western powers manipulated a fledgling China and kept it in political and economic dormancy. These formative years have shaped the Chinese perspective of Japan. According to a 2016 survey, 81% of Chinese citizens viewed Japan unfavorably or with hostility. Although this opinion has fluctuated since the founding of Communist China in 1949, China has remained firmly anti-Japanese. Japanese views of China are even worse. The same survey revealed that 86% of Japanese citizens view the Chinese negatively. Interestingly, in contrast to Capitalist Peace Theory, which argues a positive correlation between growing trade relationships and peace between states, nationalistic tendencies have heightened in both Japan and China as the countries have further integrated their economies. While peace between the Asian behemoths has prevailed during the past 70 years since the conclusion of World War II, crises have continued to plague the Sino-Japanese relationship. Prime Minister Abe and the Diet, Japan’s bicameral legislature, are working to strengthen Japanese military capabilities in the face of a rising China. The tenuous peace between China and Japan is weakening.
Heightening tensions between both great powers boiled over in the early 2010s with the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Although the crisis remained bloodless and merely resulted in water cannon shots and verbal accusations, global observers feared an outbreak of war. Riots broke out across China denouncing Japan and its traded goods. These riots resulted in the destruction of Japanese-made vehicles, the vandalism of Japanese consulates, and Chinese police forces outlawing public protest for the duration of the crisis. The dispute derived from two major public issues. First, nationalist sentiment in China and Japan had continued to intensify and the competing claims for ownership over territory presented a prime opportunity for these tensions to flare. Second, since the discovery of oil in the East China Sea in 1971, surrounding states have diplomatically jockeyed over maritime rights in the region and ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to gain access to the area’s natural resources. Additionally, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands hold particular relevance for Chinese grand strategy, although Beijing rarely mentions the islands’ strategic military purpose.
Chinese naval expansionism is currently trapped behind the First Island Chain, which inhibits Chinese blue water hegemonic ambition. The First Island Chain geographically comprises Sakhalin to the far north and continues south through Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. These archipelagic states effectively block China from access to the Pacific Ocean. This limitation to China’s deep-sea ambitions contests its global ambitions of military and strategic influence. Furthermore, in the extremely unlikely circumstance that China finds a reliable passage through the First Island Chain, such as with a reunited Taiwan or amicable Philippine leadership, Beijing would remain inhibited by the ‘second island chain,’ which is further east and encompasses the Ogasawara, Volcano, and Mariana Islands. There is even talk of a ‘third island chain’ which includes the Aleutians, Hawaii, and parts of Oceania, as a final defensive line if China ever found access through the first two. These consecutive geographic barriers portray one key detail about Chinese naval ambitions: multiple states are interested in deterring Chinese expansion. This de facto coalition of nations, united by an interest in rolling back Chinese expansion, is led by the United States. And China is heavily outgunned and outspent by them.
Considering the compounding Chinese geographic limitations of the various island chains, Japanese and U.S. anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities will deter Chinese engagement beyond its immediate periphery. Japan and the United States are developing and deploying capabilities that will deter Chinese naval, air, and missile assets from full utility in the region. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defense System on the First Island Chain serve as a deterrent against the PLA, minimizing the offense capability of Beijing’s rapidly expanding rocket force. With the pivot to Asia and the bolstering of the Seventh Fleet stationed in Japan, the U.S. and Japanese naval capabilities could easily dispatch aggressive PLAN forces in Japan’s littoral. Chinese aircraft carrier and air force technology is intensifying rapidly but remains behind the development of U.S. and Japanese air force capabilities. While China is pursuing comparable arms, the PLA will remain unable to challenge the regional status quo. If conflict broke out in East Asia, U.S.-Japanese forces could effectively contain China to its coastal regions and destroy considerable Chinese offensive threats.
Scholarship considering the hegemonic rise of China in relation to historical hegemonic bids often misses a key component – geography. China is located in a particularly troubled spot. Russia is coy but engages with China in silent wars of influence in their peripheries. Additionally, Russia longs for its hegemonic role lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A rising China challenges that resurrection. India remains an adjacent, weaker neighbor who regularly fights against Chinese expansion in South Asia. With India’s interest in becoming another great power, geographic adjacency threatens both hegemonic bids. Even though China’s history with India is considerably less aggressive than its history with other neighbors, both countries are threatened by one another’s rise. Lastly, Japan attempted to conquer China, slaughtered countless Chinese, and remains proactive against Chinese expansion. China has been unable to repair the Sino-Japanese relationship diplomatically, and Japan shows little interest in pursuing rapprochement. Geography has pre-ordained three adjacent challengers to China’s rise, and that does not include the greatest preventative power located thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean – the United States.
The United States’ role in the current international liberal order dictates the prevention of rising powers that can challenge the status quo. China, as the most likely upset in the global balance of power, is the largest concern of the United States. A few points must be made to fully encapsulate how the United States is deterring China’s rise. The United States has a ring around China’s mainland and perpetually maintains military capabilities throughout. From heavily armed bases in Central Asia to various allies in South Asia to the Seventh Fleet and committed U.S. partners in East Asia, China is surrounded by U.S. power. Washington naturally wants to maintain the favorable status quo that keeps the United States in charge and China as a contained member of the regional community. There is nothing China can currently do to upset this reality. Without reciprocal forward-basing capabilities like those of the United States, China cannot threaten the continental United States and its immense latent influence. Additionally, whereas the United States has many island groups where it can station forces to deter China, there exist no similar geographic features off the United States that could support a Chinese attempt of foreign basing. The geographic balance is not equal and will perpetually favor the U.S. position. Washington knows this and will continue to devote many resources to maintain China’s containment.
China will continue to grow economically and militarily. It may even gain some victories in its periphery, such as with those nations that continue to align with Beijing’s interests or in its initiatives at island-building in the South China Sea. However, the foreseeable future remains staunchly against Chinese regional hegemony. Geography has trapped and deterred China’s rise. Future technological, political, economic, or cultural developments could upend this reality, but there is no way Beijing or its peripheral rivals could anticipate such events. In the meantime, the hegemonic ambitions of China continue to be contained and Beijing’s ambitions stifled. Ultimately, geography matters.
David Stoffey received his Master’s in statecraft and national security affairs from The Institute of World Politics. He works as a foreign policy research analyst at a D.C. non-profit with personal interests in East Asian and European international relations. David holds a bachelor’s in economics and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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 Examples of pundits and scholars indicating great concern of future Sino-American conflict include: John Mearsheimer, Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (New York and London: Norton Publishing; second edition, 2014), 360-411; Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017); Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, (New York: Macmillan, 2015); David Ignacious, “China Has a Plan to Rule the World,” Washington Post, November 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/china-has-a-plan-to-rule-the-world/2017/11/28/214299aa-d472-11e7-a986-d0a9770d9a3e_story.html?utm_term=.fc9a06be4f11.
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 This archipelago shares two names due to the Chinese/Japanese claims. Given the legal uncertainty over ownership, this paper uses both.
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 Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream (London: Zed Books, 2017), 170.
 In 2004, Booz Allen Hamilton published “Energy Futures in Asia” which discussed China’s investment strategy in energy sources around the world. This energy infrastructure was supplemented with the purchasing of major ports in many states in the Asian periphery. The report nicknamed these ports the ‘String of Pearls.’
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 Additional information on the Doklam Incident and its relevance to Sino-Indian relations, see: “Conflict Between Giants: The Doklam Incident,” Charged Affairs, published 9 October 2017, https://chargedaffairs.org/doklam-incident/.
 This conservative casualty estimates targets Chinese deaths from the First Sino-Japanese War, the occupation of Manchukuo and mainland China, and the Second Sino-Japanese War.
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