13 May 2013

Toward “Land” or Toward “Sea”? The High-Speed Railway and China’s Grand Strategy

Looking for substantive geostrategic analysis by a top Chinese scholar? Read on!

Wu Zhengyu, “Toward ‘Land’ or Toward ‘Sea’? The High-Speed Railway and China’s Grand Strategy,” Naval War College Review 66.3 (Summer 2013): 53-65.

China’s maritime development having come up against pressures and challenges in recent years, the concept of “strategic hedging”—that is, pursuit of and investment in policies meant to protect the nation against the effects of geopolitical and economic uncertainty—has emerged. One of its most important proponents is Gao Bai, an ethnic Chinese professor of sociology at Duke University (in Durham, North Carolina) and the author of the article “The High-Speed Railway and China’s Grand Strategy in the 21st Century” (高铁与中国21世纪大战略). Professor Gao believes that the 2008 global financial crisis and the return, through its own strategic adjustment, of the United States to the Asia-Pacific region mean that China’s “blue-water strategy” has come to an end. The financial crisis severely battered China’s export market, which will be difficult to restore even after the crisis has subsided. America’s return to the Asia-Pacific region has not only complicated China’s situation in its own neighborhood but made East Asian economic integration more difficult to achieve. As Professor Gao points out, because China’s economic transformation cannot be achieved in the short term, the nation must find a new way out—and a high-speed rail provides a realistic way to break through the current impasse.

The development of a high-speed rail has the potential not only to promote the integration of Eurasian economies but to prevent a reversal of globalization and gain time for China’s domestic economic restructuring. A high-speed rail could also represent a hedging strategy, leading to a more favorable position for China in the global arena. Professor Gao stresses that such a project, a land/sea hybrid in nature, offers a measure of freedom of strategic choice: if a problem arises on the maritime front, China can develop westward and dedicate itself to the integration of Eurasian economies; if difficulties emerge on the Eurasian landmass, China can turn eastward, dedicating itself to the integration of Asian-Pacific economies. It is no exaggeration to say that the importance of Professor Gao’s article is on a level well beyond that of a high-speed rail in itself. The strategy that he advocates is essentially related not only to China’s present dilemma but at the same time to China’s strategic choices into the foreseeable future.

There is no doubt that, China at the moment being under intense pressure, the hedging strategy that Professor Gao proposes is highly appealing. If this proposition really comes to fruition, for quite some time China will no doubt enjoy the enviable position of having the best of both worlds on the global political and economic stage. But the problem is that while Professor Gao’s article is principally based on the usefulness of the high-speed rail in integrating the economy of the Chinese mainland, this proposal is not as feasible as it seems at first glance; also, and more importantly, even if it were realizable, it would not help China escape its present conundrum. In modern history, the emergence and development of the railway has indeed played an important role in increasing the power of continental countries vis-à-vis maritime countries. However, this does not mean that we must see the importance of the railway as unquestionable. In actuality, though more than a hundred years have passed since the emergence of the railway, the Chinese “heartland” mentioned by Professor Gao (he borrowed it from Halford Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality) is still a relatively backward region. Since there exists no substantial “generation gap” between the high-speed rail and its existing precursor, the modern railway, it is highly doubtful whether the high-speed rail really has the force to “integrate the economies of the Eurasian landmass.”

An even more important question is, Can the continental strategy with the economic integration of the Eurasian landmass as the core really live up to the strategic utility to which Gao refers? The answer to this involves three issues. First, can the continental strategy help China sidestep strategic contradictions and conflicts between China and America? Second, as a pillar in the economic integration of the Eurasian landmass, what impact will the high-speed rail have on Sino-Russian relations? Third, what are the possible strategic impacts of great Chinese inroads into Central Asia? In view of Professor Gao’s proposed strategy relating to the direction of China’s long-term development, it is necessary to explore and analyze systematically the wisdom of his hedging strategy and on this basis strive to clarify what path China should take in response to maritime pressure. …

For further analysis of China’s continental versus maritime evolution and choices, see:

Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, “When Land Powers Look Seaward,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 137.4 (April 2011): 18-23.

Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, “Studying History to Guide China’s Rise as a Maritime Great Power,” Harvard Asia Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3-4 (Winter 2010), pp. 31-38.

Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, “China Sets Sail,” The American Interest,Vol. 5, No. 5 (Summer, May/June 2010), pp. 27-34.

Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, eds., China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, July 2009).