Defence Strategic Review-Prometheus bound – China the constrained superpower

Sep 29, 2022
The Great Wall of China.
Image: iStock

Several contributors to this series have argued that China should not be seen as a military threat to Australia. Their arguments are based on historical, political, and cultural grounds, or all three. Henry Kissinger in his 2011 book On China concluded similarly.

But should security policy be based on legitimately contested views of China’s past, present and, most importantly, likely future behaviour? The argument that historically China has never been an expansionary power depends on a cultural and ethnical distinction between Han and Mongol peoples. While it is correct to make this distinction, the nuances of experts can readily be lost on others.

Under the ethnically Mongol rulers of the Qing Dynasty, especially Emperor Qian Long, China was a restless empire swallowing up vast areas to the southwest, west, north, and northeast. It was aggressive and brutal in typical imperial style. At Yili, on today’s current border with Kazakhstan, Emperor Qian Long ordered a mosque to be built to resemble a decorated, colourful, pastiche of a Qing palace pavilion. The local Iman explained to me that he wanted believers when they went to pray to think of far-away Beijing.

Rather than protesting that China has never been an expansionary power, a stronger line of argument, which is seldom used, is to ask, even if we assume the worst in terms of the Communist Party’s ambitions for world hegemony, what is China’s capacity to realise its ambitions?

When looked at from this angle – capacity rather than intent – the China Threat diminishes drastically. This also applies to the threat of military action against Taiwan. The conditions China faces in its ascendency are vastly different from those faced by the United States in its rise to global pre-eminence.

Constraints of history, geography and resource endowments

In my book, China’s Grand Strategy, China is described as Prometheus Bound, or a constrained superpower. China is constrained by its history, geography but, most importantly, by its resource base.

Historically, China is still an empire with vast unresolved territorial issues inside its borders – Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and now more recently Hong Kong. These unsettled areas from Beijing’s perspective threaten China’s territorial integrity. Fragmentation of the empire is a constant anxiety which commands the bulk of China’s security resources. Over the ten years to 2020, expenditure on internal security grew faster than on external security, that is the military to defend the country.

Geographically, China has some 22,000 kilometres of land borders to defend with 14 countries on its borders. It has been in dispute and sometimes armed conflict with many of these since the PRC’s founding. In addition, China has ongoing maritime disputes with Japan.

China’s longest land border is with Russia, totalling 4300 kilometres in two sections. China and Russia have long been strategic competitors in Central Asia. They last clashed in 1969, but it took to 2004 for the last outstanding border demarcation issues to be resolved.

Despite recent warmer relations as both Putin and Xi Jinping find common cause over a broad anti-Western narrative aimed at the US, including over Ukraine, and joint military exercises bilaterally under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, historical enmities run deep.

When placed in their historical context, current China-Russia relations can be seen as a concert of convenience. In Central Asia, their strategic and security objectives are fundamentally at odds. Russia seeks territorial dominance and control over neighbouring states. China seeks pliant states for its neighbours and near abroad.

Arguably, China-Russia relations are at an historic high, but the Xi-Putin ‘friends without limits’ statement may come in time to resemble the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. It temporarily secured Germany’s eastern flank, enabling invasion of Poland. Two years later, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

China also has on-going territorial disputes with India and Japan. As recently as June 2020, deadly fist fights between PLA and Indian troops occurred over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. This greatly hardened anti-China popular sentiment in India.

For years, China and Japan have each been testing the others’ resolve over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. While the land border with Vietnam was settled in 2008, the maritime boundary is still un-demarcated and subject to dispute, including military incidents.

In addition to these significant constraints on China’s capacity to project power beyond its immediate territory and near-abroad is something much more fundamental. Unlike Russia, China is utterly dependent on world markets to supply it with most of the resources and energy it needs just to sustain its economy.

China is richly endowed with natural resources. This resource endowment allowed the Middle Kingdom largely to eschew international trade other than in certain high-value luxuries. China was largely self-sufficient in all resources and energy until the late 1990s. At first people were poor. But as incomes rose rapidly from the mid-1990s so did China’s appetite for imported natural resources and energy.

As shown in my book, by the mid 1990s China was self-sufficient in crude oil, a few years later it was a major importer, by the mid 2000s it was the world’s biggest net importer of crude oil. This will not change until oil is eclipsed as an energy source. Until 2015 when and oil and gas started to be piped across Myanmar to Kunming in Yunnan Province, all of China’s oil was imported from the Gulf via the Strait of Malacca.

A similar story can be told for most other raw materials consumed in China’s industrialisation. China only began importing small quantities of iron ore in the late 1980s. These volumes grew slowly until later in the 1990s, then in the early 2000s surged as China’s economic growth rate exploded. From about 300 million tonnes in the mid 2000s a decade later it was importing nearly three times that volume.

As the vast majority of China’s crude oil and raw material imports are transported via the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea (SCS), these are seen by Beijing as massive strategic vulnerabilities. The Strait and the SCS could be blockaded by the US in a heartbeat. Former President Hu Jintao reputably said in the mid 2000s, that the Strait of Malacca was a boot on China’s throat. Far from building on atolls and islets in the SCS to restrict trade – as media and politicians in the west erroneously assert – China is seeking to keep trade flowing through these areas.

China’s strategic vulnerabilities make exercising the military option against Taiwan most unlikely. This is even more so in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion of Ukraine galvanised western action to introduce one of the most draconian sanctions regimes the world has seen for many decades.

Because of the structure and composition of the Russia economy, sanctions have been concentrated mainly in financial areas. Russia has internally the raw materials and, especially, the energy it needs to keep the lights on. Indeed, it is still exporting its energy, even to western Europe. For China the situation is vastly different and so its strategic vulnerabilities are much more constraining on its actions.

China’s capacity to threaten countries beyond its borders is limited and this will not change even as China’s economy and commercial reach expands. The conditions China faces as it rises to global pre-eminence are vastly different than those faced by the US from the late nineteenth century. By then the US had no unsettled territory within its borders, no hostile borders nor extensive land borders to defend, and, most importantly of all, within its own borders it had all the resources and energy it required to grow and prosper, other than people. It solved its lack of people by sucking them in from Britain and Europe in vast numbers.

Whatever China may seek to do and however much it may wish to threaten other countries, its capacity to realise these objectives – if indeed it has such ambitions – is heavily constrained by the weight of history, geography, and resources endowments.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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