As the American Empire declines, many see the People’s Republic of China, with its dynamic economy and powerful military, surpassing the United States and emerging as the new world power.  The reality is more complex, and China’s future more uncertain.

According to one set of statistics, China has seen impressive economic growth as a result of the reforms instituted since 1978.  She now has the fastest-growing economy in the world, averaging over nine percent per year over the last 20 years, a total-factor productivity growth of four percent per year, the world’s second-largest economy (having surpassed Japan in 2010), the world’s third-largest GDP after Germany and the United States, a trade surplus of $260 billion, and the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserve, estimated at $2.4 trillion.  China now owns an estimated $1.6 trillion in U.S. securities (including more than $800 billion in Treasury bonds), making her the single-largest holder of U.S. public debt.  China’s Shanghai Exchange is the world’s fifth-largest stock exchange; China is the world’s largest exporter, second-largest importer, and third-largest trading nation, after Germany and the United States.  China is the world’s largest energy consumer.  She has become the world’s sixth-largest foreign investor.  In 2008, China invested over $52 billion overseas.

The last figure indicates that the economic and strategic concerns of China now overlap.  Projecting her influence into the five states of former Soviet Central Asia, as well as Pakistan, Iran, and Sudan, is as much about China advancing her political power as it is about an economic need to gain access to oil and gas reserves, and existing pipelines.

The very geography of China, which endowed the country with excellent harbors, allows Beijing to become both a land and a sea power.  Economic growth has enabled the Chinese to pursue the creation of a deep-water navy and the establishment of overseas naval bases, collectively known as the String of Pearls.  Through a series of naval bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Burma, Beijing is pursuing a containment policy of India, a political rival of China and de facto ally of the United States.  This policy, which resembles the famous “Anaconda Plan” to strangle the Confederate States during the Civil War, is not limited to the sea.  Beijing is building roads and rail lines connecting China to Pakistan, Burma, and Bangladesh.  This effectively allows China to surround India on all sides and prevent her emergence as a serious political rival—a move that undermines a key U.S. foreign-policy objective.

Additional naval bases extend Chinese power in an arc from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, a strategic choke point through which passes approximately one quarter of all the oil transported by sea (15 million barrels per day).  Beijing is capable of interfering with the supply of oil to U.S. allies Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

China sees Russia as a weak state and declining power, despite the latter’s cache of nuclear weapons.  Siberia, Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District, consists of nine administrative units and has a population of approximately six and a half million.  By comparison, adjacent Manchuria, which consists of three Chinese provinces, has a population estimated at 100 million.  Harbin, a single city in Manchuria, has a population of nearly ten million.

In Russian Siberia, a land rich in diamonds, gold, lead, molybdenum, nickel, silver, and zinc, with extensive virgin resources of oil and natural gas, and rich fisheries in the Sea of Okhotsk, Beijing is pursuing Lebensraum through illegal immigration.

On September 23, 2003, Vladimir Radyuhin observed in the Hindu, “Russia’s Chinese population has grown from just over 5,000 in the late 1980s to 3.26 million today.”  Since then, Chinese illegal immigration into Siberia has only continued to increase.  Such skyrocketing numbers could not have been achieved without the active encouragement of Beijing.

As reported in the proceedings of a seminar at United Nations University (Human Flows Across National Borders in Northeast Asia), with the 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Good Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation, Beijing officially abandoned

any territorial claims against Russia.  The fact is that the treaty is in force only for twenty years on behalf of the government, but the ordinary Chinese who arrive in Russia have their own understanding of who is the real owner of the land they want to settle.  Often they directly say that the territory will be returned to China soon.

In addition to a greater demographic presence in the region, China’s major military and industrial centers are located closer than Russia’s to China’s northeastern border, so Beijing can deploy more troops to the region in less time than can Russia.  Furthermore, Russia has fewer active troops and a smaller defense budget.  In fact, India and North Korea have more active-duty troops than Russia.

Since Russia does not pose a military threat to China, Beijing’s decision to deploy offensive military and air-force units in North China and Manchuria is cause for concern.  This deployment was detailed in the 2008 Annual Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Defense.  This situation has the potential to lead to a Russian defeat and a repeat of the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689).  According to historian Alexey D. Muraviev in The Russian Pacific Fleet,

Russia’s emergence as a Pacific power caused some serious concern in neighbouring China, which, by threat of military action, forced the Russians to sign the very disadvantageous Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689.  In the face of overwhelming Chinese military superiority, Russia agreed to abandon its settlements along the Amur River.  The Treaty of Nerchinsk was a heavy blow to Russia’s plans for further exploration of its Far Eastern territories.

A successful Chinese occupation of the Russian Far Eastern Federal District would destabilize Asia and Europe.  It would likely cause Japan to reconsider amending her constitution to become a nuclear military power.  Other neighboring states, such as South Korea and Taiwan, might feel compelled to follow suit.  Outnumbered demographically and militarily, Russia might unleash tactical nuclear weapons to defend her territory.

The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons by any government would open a Pandora’s box.  It is in the national interest of the United States to prevent such a scenario.  In the case of China’s behavior in Siberia, Washington should acquiesce to Moscow’s goals—evicting the Chinese from Russian territory, reestablishing a powerful Russian Pacific fleet to counter China’s, and establishing Russian overseas naval bases in Vietnam and India to neutralize China’s String of Pearls.

Four weaknesses in the Chinese economy pose a threat not just to continued economic growth but to the country’s political stability.  First is the growing economic disparity between the coast and the interior, and the north and the south.  Second is the estimated 200 million migrant workers and their dependents from the interior who are flooding the rich cities of the coast seeking work.  Third is the large number of the nation’s 813 million laborers who are in nonproductive state enterprises that cannot be subsidized by the government much longer.  Fourth is the 67,000 private businesses that have already laid off over 20 million workers because of the global financial crisis.  Any increase in the number of unemployed and underemployed, coupled with a growing gap between the haves and have-nots, could ignite a social revolution and threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.

The unprecedented Tibetan demonstrations of March 2008, followed the next year by those of the Uyghurs, highlighted not only the bankruptcy of 50 years of the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalities policy but a potentially fatal weakness of the Chinese state.  The future of Tibet, in particular, has the potential to redefine the very meaning of the term China.

Over the last thousand years, Tibet has experienced independence, occupation, autonomy, and occupation.  Between the seventh and eleventh centuries, Tibet was independent, ruled by kings.  China recognized Tibet’s independence by treaty in 822.  However, from the time of the Mongol conquests in the 1200’s to the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1912, Tibet held an ambiguous legal status.  Although Tibet came to exercise an autonomy amounting to independence, the Anglo-Tibetan Treaty of 1904, Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906, and Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 recognized the “suzerainty of China over Thibet.”  These treaties were effectively voided with the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty and the rule of rival warlords in China proper.  From 1912 to the invasion of the Chinese Communist People’s Liberation Army in 1950, Tibet was a de facto independent state with its own flag, currency, and political system.

After its annexation by China, Tibet was partitioned.  Over half its territory, consisting of the provinces of Amdo and Kham, was incorporated into China proper, with the Tibetan province of U-Tsang left as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).  Of a Tibetan population numbering six million, only two million live in TAR.

Fifty years of Chinese occupation resulted in the death of an estimated one million Tibetans.  Thousands of others have been imprisoned.  Over 6,000 monasteries, temples, and historic sites have been destroyed.  In 1981, Alexander Solzhenitsyn called Chinese rule in Tibet “more brutal and inhumane than any other communist regime in the world.”

Whether or not Tibet was once an independent state, it currently has a claim to autonomy under international law, according to U.N. Resolution 1514 (“Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”), adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 14, 1960.  U.N. supervision of the independence of East Timor, a country whose invasion by Indonesia in 1975 parallels China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950, provides a legal precedent for Tibet’s future.

China wishes to retain control of all the lands of prepartition Tibet, as well as the neighboring Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for two strategic reasons.  The  mountains, plateaus, and deserts of Tibet and Xinjiang make China proper, defined from north to south as the fertile valleys of the Yellow, Yangtze, and Pearl Rivers, more defensible from the north, south, and west.

More important, however, is the integrity of China proper.  Beijing saw that, when the Soviet Union lost the outlying regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus, the historic Russian core fragmented into several states: Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  It fears the same political fate will befall the People’s Republic of China, should Tibet and Xinjiang gain independence.  It fears China proper may break into two states—one northern and Mandarin, the other southern and Cantonese.  Beijing is attempting through official propaganda to keep these two “nations” united by presenting common enemies: Tibetans, Uyghurs, Islamic terrorists, and the West.  It seeks to exploit feelings of xenophobia, claiming Tibetan and Uyghur independence movements are promoted by foreign governments, and chauvinism, praising all the economic benefits the “Chinese” (north and south) have brought to Tibet and Xinjiang.

But differences between north and south China are real.  The boundary line between them is considered the Qinling Mountains and either the Huai River or the Yangtze.  The physical contrast in climate and geography between north and south gave rise to different forms of agriculture and reliance on different types of grains—wheat in the north, and rice in the south—as the local food staple.

Still more important are the ethnic and linguistic differences.  The People’s Republic of China officially recognizes 56 distinct ethnic groups.  Fifty-five are national minorities, including Hui, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Zhuangs.  They number 105 million, or 8 percent of the population.  The largest ethnic group is Han, or Chinese.  It constitutes approximately 92 percent of the country’s population and numbers 1.2 billion.  However, over 300 million of these Han are south Chinese, speaking eight languages, mutually unintelligible to the standard Mandarin of Beijing.  The population size of these linguistic groups are as follows: Wu, 77 million; Cantonese, 71 million; Min, 60 million; Xiang, 36 million; Hakka, 34 million; Gan, 31 million; Hui, 3 million; and Pring, 2 million.

In the past, the ethno-linguistic differences between north and south “Chinese” have led to the emergence of separate northern and southern states.  This occurred in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 10th, and 12th centuries.

In addition to geographic, cultural, linguistic, and historical differences, growing economic disparity has further aggravated the north-south divide.  While the principal gap is between the coast and the interior, the secondary, and arguably more important, one is between the north coast and the wealthier south coast.

Beijing wanted to reform its economic system but did not want to follow the program of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Therefore, it maintained the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party, crushing all manifestations of democracy, while emphasizing economic liberalism and promoting a virtual market economy for China.  This economic policy, pursued for over two decades, has resulted in the reemergence of a powerful Chinese state.  The acquisition of such strength has enabled Beijing to consolidate its control over indigenous nations within its realm.  For Tibet and Xin­jiang, it has meant an acceleration of Chinese colonization and expansion of roads and railroads linking those lands to China proper.  The latter facilitates not only further Chinese colonization but the ability of Beijing to project its military power into Central and South Asia.

As long as China experienced economic growth, Tibetan and Uyghur independence could easily be suppressed.  But what happens when China’s economy falters?

Beijing has linked the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party as well as that of the Chinese state and the Han identity to continued economic growth and rising incomes.  If these cannot be sustained, social and political upheaval are likely to occur.  A failing economy led to a perfect storm—economic, political, and psychological—that destroyed the Soviet Union.  A similar scenario may play out in China.

In such a situation, with the central authority weak and discredited, the south Chinese may secede.  As Russia’s secession from the Soviet Union ensured the independence of Ukraine and Uzbekistan, the secession of south China would ensure the independence of Tibet and Uyghuria.  Paradoxically, the policies Beijing has pursued to prevent China from imploding like the former Soviet Union may, in the end, ensure that she does.  Such a political dissolution would enhance the national security of neighboring countries, India and Japan in particular, as well as of the United States.