Nibbling Around the Edges: China’s Geopolitical Trauma in the 20th Century

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With all the spurious benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it is now clear that what cost Jiang Jieshi’s Southern (Nanking) power grid its life was the pre-WWII disdain for the Western rim of the (inherited) Qing territories. As also with the “Manchurian” provinces, Sun Yat-sen’s racialism seems to have strategically demoted those major stretches of unirrigated borderlands where Han settlement with thin and Chinese an imported (colonial) language only. No overarching plans for re-integration were put on paper for rolling back the (mostly) Moslem squatter-hegemons who had drifted into power after 1911 in the two key Far Western borderland provinces of Sikang (Qinghai) and Sinkiang: a somewhat similar laxity extended into Western Mongolia. Tibet was virtually abandoned to British and indigene forces, the Central Gov’t maintaining influence only at second hand, through one or another of the Ma (“Muslim”) family that ruled the Northwest.
No policy was put in place for colonization from the east, or for economic modernization. Most important of all, not a single mile of railroad track was put down west of the Qingdao-Jinan-Dezhou-Shijiazhuang-Taiyuan corridor, though that link was complete by 1923 (as also was the Beijing-Baotou line, which erupted westward to Lanzhou (Gansu) only in the 1950s.)


Memories sometimes stay with us too long. Often because politics makes it convenient to keep them in play.

This seems especially true with regard the PRC’s handling of what used to be and still is called “maritime defense” (haifang).
It is not what it sounds like.

To much oversimplify, it is a strategic function that departs radically from that of a grand (war) fleet (“blue water”) navy, filling in around the edges. If there is an org-chart place for this responsibility in legitimate international politics, it is in the Coast Guard. The mission and its instrument(s) seem almost too obvious to need defining – as an in-shore auxiliary to/of a high seas big-gun fleet, but a closer look at, say, our own (US) naval history during the birth-phase of the Republic puts paid to that idea.

The coast guard of today has its roots in a kind of parochial piracy, privateering, or smuggling that, though endemic, reached a kind of high water mark during the third quarter of the 18th century. Almost any settlement large enough and productive enough to seek the profits of transmarine trade (there were hundreds) did so more or less illegally – that is, without legitimate papers or cargo documents (fraudulent ones were common), and were defenseless if and when headed off by even the smallest of British naval ships – brigs or frigates the most common. The admix of counter-tactics hinged on having as many as possible “green-water” armed vessels that could maneuver in the estuarial shallows of Rhode Island, the Chesapeake, and the Carolinas where few if any British warcraft could maneuver or give chase. In addition to navigational advantage, this sort of fly-weight “navy” (it became so-described as early as 1775) had the considerable merit of being affordable at the lowest local/urban level, and thus could take to the sea as much as vindicators of centrifugal economic interests as of any grander concept of free trade. (See Phillips, “1775”, ch. 23, “Whaleboats, Row Galleys, Schooners and Submarines: the Small-ship Origin of the U.S. Navy”; and esp. ch 12, The Supply War at Sea, p. 327, re the arrangement with/for the cod-fishermen of Marblehead and Beverly under the “webfoot” Colonel John Glover to be hired not by anything like a navy, but as auxiliaries in the Continental Army). Never effectively coordinated or assembled into action units, these Greenwater smugglers/privateers thus gave shape and voice to the highly anarchic political mood of the Liberty rebels. It was (for that reason) not until 1797 that an independent, Federally funded navy took to the seas, and not until the War of 1812 that it first challenged British (and other European) men-of-war class opponents. The connection between “sea defence”, piracy, and a kind of feudal control over shipbuilding and arming continued into as late even as the 1861-5 War, as the South continued to leverage its tricky estuarial frontier geography for blockade running, both to get its embargoed cotton across the Atlantic, and to bring back military supplies. If there was a CSN, it was not all that different from the green water flotilla of the 1776-81 struggle.

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