China at its borders

Basically, one could feel sorry for China: Beijing has no true friends in the world – apart from a few countries with dubious reputations, such as Sudan, Syria or Belarus. Whether this will change in the foreseeable future is unlikely, given China's global political ambitions. In fact, in many countries, they are viewed with astonishment or even resentment.

Even if one reduces the radius and looks only at Asia or China's neighboring countries, the assessment does not change fundamentally. And that is actually surprising, because after all, China has fourteen neighbors over a length of 22,000 kilometers on land. In addition, there are a number of littoral states in the South and East China Seas. Theoretically, it should be easy to make friends. But it is like a big house where several lots live and no one can quite get along with the strongest neighbor.

The problem outlined here has three main causes: China's size, its history, and the country's political system. All three have the potential to become a burdensome mortgage. And this shows on China's borders first for natural reasons.


The Middle Kingdom is more than 230 times the size of Switzerland. It is therefore all too understandable that China's smaller neighbors such as Laos, Myanmar or Bhutan not only have great respect for the Goliath right on their doorstep, but that concerns and even fears are increasingly spreading among the local populations of these neighboring countries. Whether China appears on the international stage with great clamor (toward India on the occasion of the recent military skirmishes in the Himalayas) or tantalizing shouts (toward Southeast Asian countries under the Belt and Road Initiative), most neighbors' confidence in Beijing and the geopolitical goals of the communist state power has its limits.

The mere fact that China is additionally the most populous country on earth does not make things any easier. One can imagine that even larger neighbors such as Mongolia or Russia occasionally wonder how the Chinese party elite will guarantee the supply of their own population in the coming decades – or whether they might have to reckon with (albeit not necessarily territorial, but at least economic) expansionist tendencies in case of emergency. When the People's Republic of China today claims ownership of the South China Sea, which accounts for almost a quarter of the size of its mainland territory, one is not surprised why some southern and eastern neighbors are wary of this claim, to say the least, or even, as the Philippines did in 2016, turned to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.


History offers another field of conflict that always comes into play when Beijing boasts of its supposedly five-thousand-year-old peaceful and harmonious past and thus wants to prove to the whole world that Tibet or Xinjiang, for example, have always belonged to the great "Chinese nation" (Zhonghua minzu). But watch out: If you're a historian, for example, and you're interested in the (by China's Emperor Qianlong in the 18. If you want to study the genocide of the Mongolian Dzungars, which was ordered in the 19th century, or critically examine the "liberation" of Tibet by the People's Liberation Army in 1951, you would do well to conduct your studies outside China. Chinese historiography is under the absolute sovereignty of the Communist Party, and the red emperors will not tolerate any deviations or alternative views under any circumstances. Not even a critical questioning.

However, even the regime in Beijing cannot prevent neighboring India from forgetting, for example, the 1962 border war, nor from overlooking China's multi-billion dollar arms and energy trade with Delhi's arch-enemy Pakistan. Even in Russia, which shares a 3600-kilometer border with China in the Far East, people – especially at the government level – like to overlook historical legacies for economic reasons (z.B. the Sino-Soviet conflict that lasted almost three decades). However, as Putin's system will not last forever, these claims could resurface at any time. As China's strong man at the time, Deng Xiaoping, said on the occasion of Gorbachev's visit to Beijing in 1989? Russia, rather than Japan or the U.S., is Beijing's biggest enemy, he said, because it has occupied more territory from China than any other country in its history.