Sunday, October 31, 2010

China and Its Border Issues

It would seem that China-watching has become a national pastime. Each day seems to bring a few more articles discussing whatever China’s latest activities are. Waves of punditry sweep over us whenever that giant country makes a move of any kind. I must admit that I have been bitten by the bug. I have begun trying to keep up as much as I can. I am convinced that no one knows what that country is going to do tomorrow, let alone ten years from now. But that doesn’t make the China-watching any less interesting. My amateur investigating has about convinced me that China is a country beset with so many issues that they cannot possibly have a coherent plan to deal with them. When they seem to send out inconsistent and confusing messages, it may be because they actually are confused.

Robert Kaplan wrote a fascinating article titled “China’s Grand Map.” It appeared in the May/June issue of “Foreign Affairs.” He discusses the numerous and complex interactions that occur between China and its many neighbors. He also provides a concise description of what motivates—and presumably explains—China’s actions.
“Moral progress in international affairs is an American goal, not a Chinese one; China's actions abroad are propelled by its need to secure energy, metals, and strategic minerals in order to support the rising living standards of its immense population, which amounts to about one-fifth of the world's total.”

“To accomplish this task, China has built advantageous power relationships both in contiguous territories and in far-flung locales rich in the resources it requires to fuel its growth. Because what drives China abroad has to do with a core national interest—economic survival—China can be defined as an über-realist power. It seeks to develop a sturdy presence throughout the parts of Africa that are well endowed with oil and minerals and wants to secure port access throughout the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, which connect the hydrocarbon-rich Arab-Persian world to the Chinese seaboard. Having no choice in the matter, Beijing cares little about the type of regime with which it is engaged; it requires stability, not virtue as the West conceives of it. And because some of these regimes -- such as those in Iran, Myanmar (also known as Burma), and Sudan—are benighted and authoritarian, China's worldwide scouring for resources brings it into conflict with the missionary-oriented United States, as well as with countries such as India and Russia, against whose own spheres of influence China is bumping up.”
If you sweep around the boundary of China you will encounter borders with at least thirteen neighbors (the map gets complicated when you get to all the “‘stans”). We will take a tour around this map and discuss the various issues at each border.

China has plenty of options to consider with respect to North Korea with whom it shares a fairly extensive border. China’s main concern is that a stable regime exists across that border. In addition to the nuclear issue, they have to deal with the flux of people crossing over into China looking for refuge, food, or work. Mainly they see North Korea as an underutilized trading partner. China is already South Korea’s biggest trading partner. A healthy North Korea, whether independent or allied with South Korea, would be an economic boon for the Chinese. They would also like to negotiate with them for access to another Pacific port.

Russia and China have a long history of border issues. The situation at the section stretching from Mongolia to North Korea seems destined for some sort of accommodation—hopefully peaceful.
“North of Mongolia and of China's three northeastern provinces lies Russia's Far East region, a numbing vastness twice the size of Europe with a meager and shrinking population. The Russian state expanded its reach into this area during the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, while China was weak. Now, China is strong, and the Russian government's authority is nowhere as feeble as it is in the eastern third of the country. Just across the border from the roughly seven million Russians who live in the Russian Far East -- a figure that could fall as low as 4.5 million by 2015 -- in the three abutting Chinese provinces, live some 100 million Chinese: the population density is 62 times as great on the Chinese side as on the Russian side. Chinese migrants have been filtering into Russia, settling in large numbers in the city of Chita, north of Mongolia, and elsewhere in the region. Resource acquisition is the principal goal of China's foreign policy everywhere, and Russia's sparsely populated Far East has large reserves of natural gas, oil, timber, diamonds, and gold. ‘Moscow is wary of large numbers of Chinese settlers moving into this region, bringing timber and mining companies in their wake,’ David Blair, a correspondent for London's Daily Telegraph, wrote last summer.”
China has an extremely long border with Mongolia. Like Eastern Russia, it has a very low population density, is relatively wealthy in terms of natural resources, and has rich and abundant grasslands that would be of value to the Chinese. Beijing seems content—for the moment—to dominate Mongolia commercially. In the old days of imperial domains a power such as China might have been expected to just march in and take over. Kaplan sees China’s behavior with respect to Mongolia as a measure of their long-term goals.
“With Tibet, Macao, and Hong Kong already under Beijing's control, China's dealings with Mongolia will be a model for judging the degree to which China harbors imperialist intentions.”
The western province of Xinjiang presents one of China’s most complex situations. Xinjiang is large in area, rich in oil, natural gas, and minerals, and sparsely populated. Historically, its ties to China have been weak. It wasn’t until the Communist took control that the province was definitely and finally made a part of China. The population of Xinjiang is more representative of the Central Asian countries with which it borders: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The Turkic Uighurs have been uneasy under Chinese rule for some time. They make up 45 percent of Xinjiang’s population. China has been shipping Han Chinese into the region for decades in an attempt to acquire a more manageable population.

Xinjiang also provides a path to the oil and natural gas that are plentiful in the countries to its east. This region plays a major role in Beijing’s efforts to attain sufficient resources to feed its economic machine.
“Beijing's sway in Central Asia takes the form of two soon-to-be-completed major pipelines to Xinjiang: one to carry oil from the Caspian Sea across Kazakhstan, the other to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. China's hunger for natural resources also means that Beijing will take substantial risks to secure them. It is mining for copper south of Kabul, in war-torn Afghanistan, and has its eye on the region's iron, gold, uranium, and precious gems (the region has some of the world's last untapped deposits). Beijing hopes to build roads and energy pipelines through Afghanistan and Pakistan as well, linking up its budding Central Asian dominion to ports on the Indian Ocean. China's strategic geography would be enhanced if the United States stabilized Afghanistan.”
Tibet is a second region that rests uneasily under Chinese control.
“Like Xinjiang, Tibet is essential to China's territorial self-conception, and like Xinjiang, it affects China's external relations. The mountainous Tibetan Plateau, rich in copper and iron ore, accounts for much of China's territory. This is why Beijing views with horror the prospect of Tibetan autonomy, let alone independence, and why it is frantically building roads and railroads across the area. Without Tibet, China would be but a rump -- and India would add a northern zone to its subcontinental power base.”
Kaplan makes much of the potential for contention (not necessarily conflict) between China and India. One would hope that with each having so many problems to deal with internally, they would mind their own business.
“To some degree, China and India are indeed destined by geography to be rivals: neighbors with immense populations, rich and venerable cultures, and competing claims over territory (for example, the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh). The issue of Tibet only exacerbates these problems. India has been hosting the Dalai Lama's government in exile since 1957, and according to Daniel Twining, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, recent Chinese-Indian border tensions ‘may be related to worries in Beijing over the Dalai Lama's succession’: the next Dalai Lama might come from the Tibetan cultural belt that stretches across northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan, presumably making him even more pro-Indian and anti-Chinese.”
Finally we come to the nations of Southeast Asia. China shares borders with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Its goals seem to be commercial. It sees this region as a market for its manufactured goods and a source of agricultural products and natural resources. One of its thrusts is to obtain a port in the Bay of Bengal.
“China and India are competing to develop the deep-water port of Sittwe, on Myanmar's Indian Ocean seaboard, with both harboring the hope of eventually building gas pipelines running from offshore fields in the Bay of Bengal.”
China has recently inaugurated a free trade arrangement with ASEAN, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It was interesting to note that both Russia and the United States were invited by ASEAN to participate at the East Asian Summit starting in 2011. Presumably this move was to counteract the immense presence of China.

This tour around China’s perimeter seems to indicate a country whose intentions are commercial rather than imperial. Kaplan points out that while the Chinese army is huge, it does not seem to have been outfitted in a manner consistent with large-scale continental military actions. Let us hope that is in fact the case. China is in a position where it could wreak havoc far and wide if it chose to, or if it felt threatened and concluded it was necessary.

China would appear to have more problems on its plate already than it is capable of dealing with. The international issues detailed here have to be combined with a raft of economic, environmental and social issues that concurrently require attention. If the country presents an uncertain and inconsistent image, it is probably because they are feeling their way through a horrendous thicket of problems.

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