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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Geography and National Strategy: Russia and China

If you listened to our discussion on Baltic Security with Dan Lynch and Bruce Acker (embedded below), you heard a great deal of talk about geography and the challenges faced by countries in confronting the realities that geography forces on them, especially in terms of national strategy and employment of forces.

In that vein, it seems useful to review some geographic challenges faced by some major countries. Dr. George Friedman had a nice article up on the Forbes website, back in February 2016, 10 Maps That Explain Russia's Strategy, which I commend to your reading.
Many people think of maps in terms of their basic purpose: showing a country’s geography and topography. But maps can speak to all dimensions—political, military, and economic.

Dr. Friedman uses maps to discuss Russia's issues:
  1.  Russia Is Almost Landlocked;
  2.  Europe Controls Russia’s Access to the Oceans;
  3.  The Western Border is Critical to Russia’s Infrastructure;
  4.  Russia Has Lost Its Buffer Against the West;
  5.  Now Russia Has Nothing to Lose;
  6.  Difficulties Unite the Russians;
Dr. Friedman compare Russia to Sparta and Athens comes down on the side that declares Russia is more akin to Sparta:
Therefore, Russia can’t be Athens. It must be Sparta, and that means it must be a land power and assume the cultural character of a Spartan nation. Russia must have tough if not sophisticated troops fighting ground wars. It must also be able to produce enough wealth to sustain its military as well as provide a reasonable standard of living for its people—but Russia will not be able to match Europe in this regard.

So it isn’t prosperity that binds the country together, but a shared idealized vision of and loyalty toward Mother Russia. And in this sense, there is a deep chasm between both Europe and the United States (which use prosperity as a justification for loyalty) and Russia (for whom loyalty derives from the power of the state and the inherent definition of being Russian).
All of this gives the Russians an opportunity. However bad their economy is at the moment, the simplicity of their geographic position in all respects gives them capabilities that can surprise their opponents and perhaps even make the Russians more dangerous.

Dr. Friedman also penned another Forbes piece, 5 Maps That Explain China's Strategy, in which he undertakes a review of China's geographic challenges:
In effect, China is an island in Eurasia. It can move money around and sometimes technology, but not large modern armies. Therefore, China is not a threat to its neighbors, nor are they a threat to China. China’s primary strategic interest is maintaining the territorial integrity of China from internal threats. If it lost control of Tibet or Xinjiang, the PRC’s borders would move far east, the buffer for Han China would disappear, and then China would face a strategic crisis. Therefore, its goal is to prevent that crisis by suppressing any independence movement in Tibet or Xinjiang.
The core strategy of China is internal. It has only one external strategic interest—the seas to the east.
China has vital maritime interests built around global trade. The problem is the sea lanes are not under its control, but rather under American control. In addition, China has a geographic problem. Its coastal seas are the South China Sea, south of Taiwan, and the East China Sea, to its north. Both seas are surrounded by archipelagos of island states ranging from Japan to Singapore with narrow passages between them. These passages could be closed at will by the US Navy. The US could, if it chose, blockade China. In national strategy, the question of intent is secondary to the question of capability. Since the US is capable of this, China is looking for a counter.

One counter would be to establish naval bases elsewhere in Asia. However, isolated by a US blockade from these bases, this would be of little use besides shaping regional psychology. Ultimately, the Chinese must create a force that would make it impossible to block access to the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
China’s stop-gap measure is its large number of anti-ship missiles. These missiles are designed to push the United States back from crucial choke points in the seas surrounding China. The problem with these missiles is that the US can destroy them. The US can’t close the choke points while the missiles are there, but the US has the capability to map China’s anti-ship network and attack it before moving into the choke points. China then must control at least some of these strategic passages from air, sea, and land on the islands of the archipelago. And the key island, Taiwan, is beyond China’s ability to seize.
China, therefore, has three strategic imperatives, two of them internal and one unattainable in any meaningful time frame. First, it must maintain control over Xinjiang and Tibet. Second, it must preserve the regime and prevent regionalism through repressive actions and purges. Third, it must find a solution to its enclosure in the East and South China Seas. In the meantime, it must assert a naval capability in the region without triggering an American response that the Chinese are not ready to deal with.

The Chinese geopolitical reality is that it is an isolated country that is also deeply divided internally. Its strategic priority, therefore, is internal stability. Isolation amidst internal disorder has been China’s worst case scenario. The government of President Jinping Xi is working aggressively to avert this instability, and this issue defines everything else China does. The historical precedent is that China will regionalize and become internally unstable. Therefore, Xi is trying to avert historical precedent.
You should read the whole thing.

You may disagree with Dr. Friedman's assessments, but the underlying discussion of geography and its relation to national strategies is invaluable.

UPDATE: Nice reminder of the need for strategists (or would-be strategists) to revisit geography, in David Hansen's The Immutable Importance of Geography from 1997:
Misunderstanding or misusing geography can confuse our thinking and thwart our best efforts at developing effective national security strategy. Knowledgeably and sensibly applied, however, geography is a discipline that can clarify strategic issues and increase the chances of success in any political, economic, or military endeavor.

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