The Geopolitical Imperatives that Shape China’s Economy and Foreign Policy

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The Geopolitical Imperatives that Shape China’s Economy and Foreign Policy

In the first week of this year, news that China had started to land planes on a newly built runway on a man-made island at the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, made China’s murky intentions for the area finally come into sharp focus.

In recent years, China has created artificial islands on top of seven reefs and atolls in the Spratly archipelago. On those islands, now known as the Spratlys, it has been building three runways for more than a year, and new satellite imagery shows that the first one, at Fiery Cross, is now complete.

According to a report from Reuters, China claims that the runways will be used for civilian aircraft, while the islands will be used for civilian purposes, such as coast guard activity and research for its fishing industry.1

But such assurances should not be believed. China’s moves in the region are part of its long-term strategy to achieve political and economic stability by controlling its primary trade route to the west.

More than $5 trillion of world trade crosses the South China Sea every year, representing roughly half of the world’s commercial maritime traffic. Most of the ships come from China, but other countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan also depend on the route to ship their goods, and they have disputed China’s claim that the sea is part of its territorial waters.

To put China’s moves into the proper context, we have to examine China’s most pressing concerns and divine its true objectives.

One of the most insightful analysts of the geopolitical implications of China’s strategy is George Friedman of Stratfor.com. Friedman reminds us of several key points about China’s geography and demographics that help to provide needed perspective.2

The first point is that what we think of as China is actually not as large as it appears on a map. Specifically, the Han Chinese, the primary Chinese ethnic group, control only about 50 percent of the country—roughly the eastern half, minus the far northern portion.

Within China’s borders are not only what could be called “Han China” but also the equivalent of other nations. Of these, the most important are three autonomous regions—Tibet in the southwest, Xinjiang in the northwest, and Inner Mongolia in the north—as well as Manchuria in the northeast, which is a region that consists of three provinces...

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