China’s Blessed and Cursed Political Geography

China is one of the world’s fastest growing countries today with a population of almost 1.4 billion people and historically consistent rates of high economic growth in the past few decades. Many of this development can be attributed to China’s geographical advantage, but what problems does it pose?

The Good: Agriculture

The beginning of the Chinese civilisation often starts with the Yellow River civilisation. The floodplain, which undergoes yearly flooding, contains highly fertile alluvial soil which allows this area to be one of the best agricultural land in the world. This is only one example.

Agriculture within China | Commentary use

Agriculture within China | Commentary use

In fact, a large part of Eastern China provides a climate warm and wet enough for many crops to grow in large proportion. This allows a process called double cropping. Once the main crop of rice is cultivated in June and July, another slightly less productive crop can be planted for October cultivation. This increases rice output by about 25% meaning that China benefits from growing more food in the same amount of land. In comparison, Europe relies on wheat as the main crop which only provides 4 million calories per acre, whereas rice here can grow up to 11 million calories per acre.

The Bad: Geographical protection in the South

To the south of China, it border three countries: Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar

Countries surrounding China | Commentary use

Countries surrounding China | Commentary use

None of these borders were set environmentally, but instead arbitrarily by humans at war. Combined, these three countries have 1 million active military personnel compared to the 2 million in China. If a significant conflict were to break out between the countries, the challenge to China would not be as easy as expected. While China does have a technological advantage, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar all have a environmental advantage. They are all jungle countries, one of the most difficult environments for warfare. As seen historically with the Vietnam War, it is an incredibly difficult terrain to move troops in, slowing down any advancing military. Therefore, it would be significantly easier for these three countries to invade China than the reverse.

The Good: Tibet

As most people are aware, China and India are not friendly neighbours. In fact, they cannot seem to get along with each other shown by the border disputes in the Doklam plateau this past summer. That is why Tibet is so important to China.

The borders of China, Tibet and India | Commentary use

The borders of China, Tibet and India | Commentary use

Tibet was historically a separate empire until recent decades, with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invading the independent Tibet in 1950. Since then, Tibet has been established as an autonomous region, meaning that it is still under the sovereignty of the Chinese central government, but has some separate decision making. The Tibetan people are also ethnically different from the majority Han Chinese people we see in Eastern China today.

Only 0.2% of China’s population live in Tibet, which occupies 13% of the total land area. In fact, there are more people in the city centres of large cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, than the entirety of Tibet.

But it serves a purpose…

If China didn’t rule Tibet, than India would, maybe in an informal manner. There is little chance that Tibet can be independent economically and militarily without being dependent on one of the two neighbouring countries. Therefore, China knows that it could not allow an India Tibet.

Tibet acts as the Geographical protection between the main eastern areas of China and India. It extends China’s borders to the Himalayas and serves as an incredibly difficult land to cross due to the existence of the world’s tallest mountain range and the existence of the Tibetan plateau.

In addition, it simply does not have the infrastructure needed for India to advance the number of troops needed to invade China.

The weak link: Water

China also needs Tibet for water purposes. The whole eastern region of high agricultural productivity exists because of Tibet. The Yellow and Yangtze River, China’s two largest rivers has sources originating from Tibet. Therefore any possibility that Tibet comes under foreign control would pose a threat to the food supply of the country

The Yellow River | Commentary use

The Yellow River | Commentary use

The threat: The eastern ocean

While some may view the ocean as a strategic locational advantage, it is not the case in China. Arguably the world’s most powerful country, the United States have a strong Pacific military presence with bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam. It’s also a strong ally with Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Therefore in the possible event of a serious dispute with China, the US would have no problem blockading China’s maritime activities.

This is one of the reasons why China has spent so much effort establishing political sovereignty in the South China Sea, building military bases and artificial islands.

China can however, rely on building up relations with the Philippines, allowing it access to the Pacific, especially as China is heavily relies on trades in the form of imports and exports.

In summary, China does not have bad Geography, it’s actually pretty good. However, in the unlikely scenario of conflict, China does have weaknesses in Geographic protection which may hinder China’s chances of winning a conflict.