Can China Successfully Manage Being Both a Continental and Sea Power?

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September 14, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaPLA NavyChinese HistoryEast AsiaChinese Politics

Can China Successfully Manage Being Both a Continental and Sea Power?

Ruling over large, diverse territories is no easy task and it can draw attention away from maritime commerce and power.

China borders the largest number of countries by land, and its navy now boasts the largest number of battle force ships by sea. With the pressures and opportunities of both a continental and maritime power, China faces an amphibian’s dilemma, as the characteristics best suited for life at sea and life at land may not always prove complementary. Traditional continental powers are more prone to autocratic leadership to manage their challenges, while traditional maritime powers lean toward democratic systems and more open markets. China’s attempt to straddle both can intensify sectionalism and exacerbate differences between the interior core that remains continental in outlook, and the coastal areas that become more maritime in outlook. 

This challenge is also highlighted in China’s attempts to reshape global norms and standards, which themselves largely represent the maritime world order. The apparent global political and economic dissonance is not merely caused by China seeking change, but by the very continental nature of China’s history. China is bringing a continental mindset to a maritime system. And though it is able to rally sympathy with others with a more continental history, China may find it difficult to bridge the continental/maritime divide. 

China as a Continental Power

For most of its history, China has been a classic continental power. Initially a sedentary agricultural society on the northern plain along the Yellow River, China faced threats from both nomadic tribes to the north and west, as well as seafaring raiders along the east and southern coasts. Successive Chinese dynasties fought externally to secure buffer states and protect against outside powers, as well as internally to consolidate the fractious ethnic Han core, which stretched south to the Yangtze River and the rich rice land’s beyond. 

Chinese empires followed a general pattern of dynastic rise and collapse: 

-Consolidation of the Han core under a strong central leadership.

-Pressing outward along the periphery to counter external threats or capture new opportunities.

-Expanding the bureaucracy to manage the sprawling empire. 

-Internal and external economic, political and military pressures weaken the center of power. 

-Some shock that finally breaks the back of a waning empire, starting over the cycle.

China’s reconsolidation came under external northern powers twice: the Yuan dynasty of the Mongols (1279-1368) and the Qing dynasty of the Manchu (1644-1912). During the Tang dynasty (618-906), China took its position as the “Middle Kingdom,” establishing suzerainty relationships with numerous nations around its expanding periphery, and engaging in international trade and diplomatic delegations across the Asian continent. But while trade and international connections expanded, China remained heavily focused on the continent, not at sea. Managing the myriad differing population and linguistic groups inside China and pressure from external threats shaped priorities, and trade outside of the expanded empire and bordering states was largely unnecessary. 

China has flirted with a maritime focus in the past, often when power was centered in the south. The Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) had a large navy for coastal defense and riverine operations. And when the Mongols conquered Korea and Southern Song, they turned that maritime power briefly against Japan, with two ultimately unsuccessful invasions. During the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), where the capital was initially in southern China at Nanjing, Zheng He embarked on several voyages around Asia and Africa in his famed treasure fleets. While these marked a notable expansion of Chinese maritime activity, they were largely focused on asserting Chinese power and centrality through diplomatic and tribute collection delegations, rather than building trade routes or a long-term naval presence. And with the capital shifted back north to Beijing and internal troubles once again arising, China disposed of the fleet and turned continental once again. 

Modern China has largely retained that continental focus. Like earlier peasant rebellions, the Chinese Communist revolution took root in the interior in the 1930s and 40s, despite the nationalist government having a maritime outlook from its southern base in Nanjing. And while Taiwan has always been a focus of the Communist Party’s unification of China, early consolidation focused on western regions, securing Xinjiang in 1950 and Tibet in 1951. Mao Zedong (1949-1976) focused heavily on China’s interior, at times with disastrous results, as in the Great Leap Forward. Even as Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989) moved to shift China’s economic policies and open the country to more trade, the Chinese government prioritized managing internal ethnic and social issues, as well as China’s numerous disputes along its land borders. During this time, China’s national security was focused on maintaining a large, land-based People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with infrequent attention to naval power. 

China today is still largely a continental land power. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China found itself with 14 contiguous neighbors, many ambivalent toward the People’s Republic. Domestically, around two-thirds of the Chinese population live in the interior, though much of the nation’s economic activity occurs along the coast. This dichotomy has the potential to stir traditional instability, and Chinese leaders spend a lot of their time and effort emphasizing the importance of the interior. The response to the global financial crisis was to rapidly increase infrastructure spending in the interior, and enhance rail connectivity toward western China. The Belt and Road initiative (BRI) continued that continentalist strategy by seeking to redirect attention from domestic socio-economic gaps to economic opportunities across the borders to the west and south.

China as a Maritime Power

China’s rapid economic rise from the mid-1990s created a new pressure point on the Chinese system. For much of China’s history, the country was largely self-sufficient, so long as it didn’t mismanage its resources. But economic growth increasingly linked China into extended supply chains, for raw materials and for overseas markets. With most outward-focused economic activity taking place along the coast or along rivers connected to the coast, China’s international trade was largely by sea, and vulnerable to the key maritime chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca. Rising competition with the United States reinforced China’s trade risk, with U.S. allies or partners forming a crescent surrounding the Chinese coast, from South Korea and Japan through the Philippines and down through Southeast Asia and Australia.

For China, there were three options: 1) Accept U.S. control of the seas, as most other nations did; 2) Find alternative routes to reduce its vulnerability to the chokepoints along its maritime frontier, or 3) Build a naval capability that could secure its supply chains throughout the region and beyond. China chose the latter two, one through the BRI and the other via the rapid expansion of the PLA navy, coupled with air and sea defense missiles and territorial assertions in the South China Sea. By the late 1990s, China was building bases and airstrips on contested reefs and rocks in the South China Sea. And in early 2001, tensions rose amid the Hainan Island Incident. While China backed off at the time, due both to its own recognized weaknesses and the U.S. shift in attention to the war against terrorism, Beijing redoubled its shipbuilding efforts. 

China’s navy now outmatches the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and has more battle force ships than the United States (though in tonnage, the U.S. Navy’s vessels still far outweigh those of the PLA Navy). Combined, these developments have reshaped the balance of naval power in the Western Pacific. In addition, China has significantly expanded its coast guard and other coastal defense forces, revived and expanded several airfields and small bases on artificial islands built on disputed reefs in the South China Sea, and has fielded two aircraft carriers, with another under construction and several more planned. 

While China’s naval buildup focused initially on quantity, it has shifted in recent years to quality, testing numerous versions of ships before choosing preferred platforms, and coming close to its peer competitors in several areas of key naval technologies. China has tested its ability to operate for extended periods of time far from home, taking advantage of anti-piracy operations off the coast of Africa to provide real-world training for its crews and establishing a base in Djibouti. The PLA navy does remain behind in some aspects, including anti-submarine warfare and multi-domain naval operations. It also has no culture of carrier battle group operations, and has not been tested in real combat experience since the 1970s. But Beijing has gone a long way to build a modern and professional navy that by many accounts can now outcompete the U.S. Navy in the enclosed waters of the South China Sea. 

China continues to seek to shape the maritime environment within the so-called first island chain, and has regularly pushed beyond into the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific and more recently into the Arctic, though the latter still primarily with its civilian fleet. China’s future shipbuilding capacity appears robust, while that of Japan and the United States is curtailed by budgetary concerns and shifting priorities.  

China as an Amphibian Power

China’s naval build-up has been rapid, facilitated by the centralized nature of the government and economy. And this maritime focus has paralleled China’s landward infrastructure and trade push along its periphery, reflecting both China’s overall economic strength and its stated intent to take its place among the chief powers of the world system. But as with past rising powers and empires, China faces challenges both from the status quo power, the United States, and from its many neighbors. China’s proclaimed pursuit of “win-win” solutions as it expands its economic, political and military influence will only serve it for so long before the attendant imbalances in power lead to resistance — and in many places, that is already happening. 

China’s dual challenges with managing its continental interests and its newer maritime priorities have historical precedence in other rising powers. In his 1890 book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, American naval scholar and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan discusses how France consistently struggled with the economic and security costs of seeking to dominate the European continent and maintain a robust navy to counter British maritime power. 

At the time, Mahan sought to stir the United States to a global maritime role, expounding on the way British sea power shaped national strength. Germany, in both World Wars, also found itself torn between its continental and maritime priorities. Both were important to secure German power, but each also required a unique strategy with very different resources and key geographies. During the Cold War, the United States used the geographically constrained Soviet sea access to hem in the country, while also exploiting its long land borders in the strategy of containment. 

Similarly, for China, neighboring countries represent both an opportunity for economic and strategic gain, and a vulnerability to China’s national security. Beijing must ensure that its borders remain secure, that regional problems in places like Afghanistan do not interfere with Chinese supply lines through Central and South Asia or spill over into western China, and find ways to reduce the options for the United States to solidify allies and partners around the Chinese periphery. China must also do this at sea to secure its dominant position in the enclosed seas of Asia, as well as regional territorial competitions and undermine U.S. maritime coalitions, while also building out a network of port and resupply agreements along the length of its supply lines. 

The U.S. emergence as a global naval power in the 20th Century occurred only after the United States had largely secured its continental position, and was left with only two land neighbors. China’s maritime emergence is happening while it is still seeking to secure its continental position through infrastructure and trade, but this is still a work in progress. Yet if it could, through a combination of economic, political and security arrangements, China would represent the new heartland power envisioned by British geographer Sir Halford J. Mackinder. As early as his 1904 paper defining the Heartland, Mackinder noted that China could at some future point fill this role as a nation capable of uniting the resource base and manpower of Europe, Asia and Africa and then turning its focus to the seas, where it would overwhelm the international maritime order. In his 1944 book titled The Geography of the Peace, American strategist Nicholas Spykman also noted that the “dominant power in the Far East will undoubtedly be China, providing she achieves real unification and provided that Japan’s military power is completely destroyed.”

Making the Leap

Continental powers must deal with managing governance over large territories, balance the differing interests of numerous neighbors, ensure unity among a diversity of domestic ethnic regions, and shoulder the higher cost of less efficient transport across land. Maritime powers are driven by commerce and the need to both ensure the continuity of long supply lines far from the core national support base, as well as engage in international intercourse that highlights differing social and economic norms from a continental power. But an amphibious nation must manage both the complexities of a continental empire and the challenges of a maritime power.

A key question, then, for understanding the geography of the 21st century is whether China will be able to overcome the amphibian’s dilemma, and emerge as equally formidable both on land and at sea.

China’s Amphibian Dilemma: Straddling Land and Sea Ambitions is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical forecasting and intelligence publication from RANE, the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange. As the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor Worldview brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is a RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange) company.

Image: Reuters.