Following a long historical experience, beginning with the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire and ending with the British and American Empire, the requirements for becoming a global superpower have gradually become entrenched in the minds of the ruling elites, including in that of China’s. Economic capabilities, political conditions and military strength have their importance of course, but they do not necessarily guarantee that a state will become a superpower. A state can be an industrial powerhouse or it can poses immense military power, like Germany and Japan did at the start of the Second World War. But were they global superpowers? Certainly not and only through their alliance were they able to influence events on a global scale. Time and again, history has shown that countries with more efficient armies, administrations and economies can be surpassed by states far less advanced in either – or in all – of those branches, but with more favorable geography. Germany and Russia are perhaps the best examples in this sense. Nowadays, China finds itself in a similar situation as Germany did. In its case, the geography of the East and Southeast Asia is very much disadvantageous, factor which will delay the realization of its global ambitions for years, if not decades.
The 19th century concept of sea power forwarded by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s, while not a novelty at the time of its appearance has been proven time and again to be correct and China makes no exception to the rule. Control of the seas allows power projection at a global level and in this case we’re talking about hard power. It took more than 100 years of successive humiliations at the hands of the European Great Powers, Imperial Japan and the Americans for the Chinese to understand that. Out of the necessity of ensuring its own security and its trade lanes, the Chinese are forced to embark on the road of becoming a global player, just like the British and the Americans before them. On this, the very survival of the Party could depend because in the end, the sustainability of its economy depends on foreign resources, particularly those from Africa and the Middle East. For the moment, the Chinese trade lines are not protected by Chinese ships, but by American ships, which only deepens China’s dependency on the U.S. There are many reasons for this situation, such as for example the lack of a global system of alliances, or the inability to project hard power anywhere on the globe, or the very configuration of its navy, whose ships are designed and built for defense of the mainland, rather than to carry out deep-sea, long-range operations. All those are intertwined of course and they derive from each other. But they also derive from geography. And in China’s case, two geographical conditions are absolutely imperative if it wants to become a global player: securing its own backyard – namely the East China Sea and South China Sea – and obtaining a secure opening to the Pacific Ocean. Naturally, the Party knows this and its aggressiveness in these areas reflects this situational awareness.
The safeguarding its own periphery is the fundamental precondition for achieving the opening to the Pacific Ocean. Without it, the American fleet and those of its allies will always be able to put on pressure directly on the Chinese ports themselves, at any given time, particularly since the bulk of the Chinese naval forces are concentrated in only three ports: Qingdao in the Yellow Sea, Dinghai in the East China Sea and Zhang Jiang in the South China Sea.
A safe opening to the Pacific Ocean would be the second step in its road of becoming a global player. However, Japan’s experience prior and during World War II proved that it alone is not sufficient, but only a start. China needs it in order to ensure the safety of its coastline, in order to consolidate its position regionally and ultimately to draft a global system of alliances, which in turn could take decades to achieve. But as stated above, there is one major impediment standing in the way of this objective: geography.
The geographic “fence”
The manner in which the islands in the East and South China seas are positioned form a veritable barrier which blocks any possible exit into the Pacific Ocean, in all directions. This barrier is composed of the Philippines archipelago, Sumatra, Java, Indochina, Borneo, Taiwan, the Japanese archipelago and a series of smaller islands, such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Ryukyu Islands, the Xisha/Paracel Islands, the Pratas Island and the Nansha/Spratly Island. Some of these islands are close to one another or with the mainland, forming veritable choke-points which prevent Chinese military vessels from leaving its proximity to the Pacific undetected.
Similarly, the Tsushima Strait, which stands between South Korea and Japan, blocks China’s access to the Sea of Japan, while the Luzon Strait, standing between Taiwan and Luzon Island, blocksthe exit to the Pacific Ocean from the South China Sea. Moreover, the Ryukyu Islands block the exit to the Pacific from the East China Sea. Further South, the strategic problem is even bigger because the high density of islands and the large size of some of them – e.g. Java or Sumatra – limit the space for maneuver significantly. Obviously, the islands in themselves provide little block, but to the geographical impediment we must add the military one, namely the fleets of the countries in the region and more importantly, the U.S. seventh fleet.
Thus, in a scenario of a Chinese fleet attempting to pass through one of these choke-points on an East-West direction, one would have to take into account the likelihood of coming face-to-face with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Japanese fleet and quite possibly the ships of the various countries in the region that are hostile or mistrustful of China. Needless to say, it would be a hard nut to crack for a fleet comprised mainly of small and medium-sized ships, with a technology inferior to that of Japan and the U.S.
The Chinese “fence” will, for the foreseeable future, prevent China from securing its trade lanes, its proximity, from obtaining a safe corridor to the Pacific Ocean and ultimately from seriously challenging the regional status quo. It will be able to do that, but only in certain limits, which will be both self-imposed, as well as forcefully imposed by outside powers, which will take advantage of geography. And while the outside powers will try to keep China contained, the Chinese will try to go out, thus increasingly turning the East China Sea and the Korean Peninsula into battlegrounds between China and Japan and the South China Sea into a battleground between China and the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
This doesn’t mean China will go to war with the U.S. or with any of its allies in search for space, but rather that the current state of facts effectively prevents China from becoming a naval threat to begin with, by making it clear that if such a space is searched for, it may lead to conflict, in one form or another.