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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China, Tibet and the Dynamics of Inland Borders

October 5, 2011



China, Tibet and the Dynamics of Inland Borders

Robert Barnett
Columbia University

A Keynote Address at the conference
'Asian Diversity in a Global Context'
Asian Dynamics Initiative
University of Copenhagen
11 November 2010

Discussions in the western press about China's standing these days tend to center on two issues: its economic might, meaning primarily its foreign trade and its holdings of foreign reserves, and its military capacity, meaning in particular its emerging ability to deny the US Navy access to its littoral areas.

Thus we see much mention in our papers these days of the South China Seas. Prominent among such reports has been Secretary of State Clinton's statement in May 2010 that the People's Republic of China [hereafter China] now considers the South China Sea to be a 'core interest', a key diplomatic term only used once previously in this context.[1] This has led analysts to write about a new, assertive China never seen before.

This talk of power, seas, and future conflict—is this an informative way to think about China and the region? Many commentators, political analysts and politicians address questions of China's power in terms of military size, hegemonic clashes and power projection. These issues have an important place in the discussions of military planners, but in many other contexts they often represent essentially journalistic (to use that word loosely and with due deference to professionals) anxieties about major conflict and instability. They may not be the only or the most precise way to think about power in general, or China in particular. How should such an approach be assessed, and are there other, more useful ways in which we might frame questions about China and its power?

A Contrary Example: Tibet

Tibet is useful in considerations of this question because it represents by all appearances the antithesis of power and the polar opposite of the South China Seas. It accounts for less than 1% of China's GDP and has no connection to issues of maritime power projection. It is an area that is not wealthy, powerful, populous, or of obvious geopolitical significance. It is no longer a state, if it ever was, and is of no consequence to foreign politicians, except perhaps those with constituents who have some personal interest in the area or its culture.

That is at least what we were told fifteen or twenty years ago, when this was the standard opinion among politicians almost everywhere: contemporary Tibet was a minor issue and a backwater of no political or scholarly importance. I remember at that time being advised by several scholars from other fields not to waste my time studying it. I don't say this was entirely incorrect—for one thing, it's certainly insufficient to study Tibet without a deep knowledge of the wider context. But that is not what these advisors meant. That became clear the first time I approached a university about this topic.

It was 1990 and I, together with Tsering Shakya, now a Canada Research Professor in Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, convened the first-ever conference on modern Tibet. It was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London and our host was—significantly—the Central Asian Department. But I wanted to make sure the Tibetologists who attended would be thinking from the outset in terms of China and the China context, which had rarely been the case for most of them; that was our objective. So I invited the head of Chinese Studies at SOAS to give the keynote address. He walked in, greeted the delegates, said that in terms of China and the world, Tibet was a peripheral issue. That was basically it; after that, he walked out. He didn't think that what he had said was controversial or discourteous; it was just a fact. That was the general view of China scholars then, at least in the UK.

Now, there is a permanent endowed chair in Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, Copenhagen has the first chair in Western China Studies, British Columbia has a Contemporary Tibetan Studies Program, the University of Virginia and Case Western Reserve University in the US both have centres for research that focus entirely on modern Tibetan issues, universities in Paris, Oslo, Indiana and Boulder have important courses on Modern Tibetan Studies, and Helsinki University has an active research and teaching program in this field. At least 100 PhD dissertations have been completed in the last ten years or so or are currently under way in Modern Tibetan Studies, probably twice that number. And that includes only modern and contemporary studies of Tibet, not studies of Tibetan religion, philosophy, language, or pre-twentieth century history. Significant change has taken place in the last two decades within the academic community concerning the importance of Tibet in the modern world.

Core Interests, Anomalies and Tibet

That change mirrors an even more striking shift in public discussions among Chinese officials concerning Tibet, one which links it directly to the South China Seas. It relates to that phrase which has so alerted the western media and foreign policy analysts: the issue of China's 'core interests'. Three years before that term was used to refer to China's South Sea claims, setting off a firestorm about China's potential for projecting power beyond its borders, it had become China's official, public description of Tibet. That area thus joined Taiwan and later Xinjiang as the publicly declared core interests of China. This had not led to any discussion in the foreign or domestic term; no-one was surprised. But if that term is so important, if it represents so serious a power projection, then what are we to make of the fact that Tibet has been classified as a core interest since 2006? Why would Tibet today, long seen in the west as peripheral and insignificant, be so important to China as to earn that term?

Some observers associate the decision by China to elevate Tibet to that level with the eruption of widespread unrest in 2008, when there were 150 protests across the plateau. These incidents attracted considerable publicity, largely because about 15% of them involved some violence, a far higher percentage than in the previous outbreak of unrest twenty years earlier. These protests led to a visible intensification of Chinese concern about the region and a significant increase in the militarization of the area. But in fact Tibet had first been described by China as a core national interest two years earlier. That year there were perhaps three protests in Tibet, all of them quite minor, so the upgrading of the Tibet issue to the highest level of concern can hardly have been related to unrest. And the foreign focus on unrest as a driver of elite anxieties about power and challenges to it in itself needs consideration: China had something like 80,000 protests in 2007 and nearly twice as many two years later, many of them quite serious. Most observers, however, did not see these as a major challenge to the state. So if a mere 150 protests in Tibet had been our explanation for China's upgrading of the area's significance, then our understanding of China's strategic determinations must be incomplete: there must be something about the Tibetan issue that is more significant in Chinese official thinking than how many times the locals take to the streets.

An explanation offered by western scholars is the fact that Tibet has an independence movement. But in fact that movement is noticeably passive and unorganized, its leaders have been suing with increasing desperation for a compromise solution for some three decades, it can and is managed militarily quite easily, and it appears far less serious as a military challenge to China than the on-going independence movement in Xinjiang. So on closer examination this does not seem a sufficient explanation. And there are other apparent anomalies in China's own statements about Tibet which have also not been widely addressed by foreign commentators. In July 1990, at the same time that the western Sinologist at SOAS was declaring Tibet to be insignificant, Jiang Zemin, then China's President and the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party [hereafter Party], was in Lhasa, carrying out what was the highest-level visit ever made there by a Chinese official. He declared then that Tibet's security was inseparable from the security of the entire nation, and this became the standard formulation for official descriptions of the Tibet issue from then on: 'Tibet's stability affects the state's stability; …Tibet's security concerns national security', as it was described in a government White Paper.[2] The classification as Tibet as a 'core interest' in 2006 upgraded what had long been a recognition by the Party of the critical importance of the area to its fundamental interests.

In fact, there have been indicators in official policy that Tibet has always been treated as an issue requiring special attention and exceptional policies, and that it has been accorded an importance out of proportion to the size of its population and economy, and despite its remoteness as seen from the Chinese heartlands:

  • It is the only area in the People's Republic with which the Chinese leaders negotiated and signed a treaty-like agreement on the terms of its incorporation. That agreement, signed in 1951, included an undertaking from Beijing that it would 'not alter the existing political system in Tibet' or 'the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama';
  • In 1980, it became the only area where a top Chinese leader (Hu Yaobang, then the General Secretary of the Party) has made what we might call a public apology for the Party's failed policies. Hu ordered most Chinese cadres to leave Tibet and declared that the Party's policies there for the previous thirty years had been wrong;
  • Of the thirteen White Papers that the Chinese government has released on 'nationality' issues, nine have been on Tibet;
  • Until 2010, Tibet was the only area in China for which a special 'National Work Conference' was held every five to ten years by the top leadership to decide on policy and to commit central funds to the area, and from 1994 the only area which every inland province was required to subsidize;
  • Tibet remains the only area of China which is largely closed to foreigners and for which they are still required to obtain a special permit to enter;
  • In 2005, Tibet became the only nationality area in China to be given its own desk or section within the United Front Department, the Party agency that handles all nationality and religious issues; and,
  • China's current leader, the current mayor of Beijing, and the official currently seen as the leading candidate for the top leadership position after 2018 all made their careers serving in Tibet, unlike a previous phalanx who had been engineers, industrial managers, or sometimes Soviet-trained.

Other areas of China are also of great importance to Beijing, each in their own way, and in each case with contingent factors that can in part explain why China's leaders decided to pay particular attention to that areas at any given time. In the case of the special policies reserved for Tibet in the 1950s, there were acute concerns in Beijing about intervention by the US and later the CIA; there were no roads to bring in troops and supplies; there was acute nervousness about the powerful, unifying role of the Dalai Lama and of religion in general, and so on. But given that, even today, the area which China considers to be Tibet holds only 0.2% of China's population, and so is a tenth of the average size of any other area on the mainland at the same administrative level, our understanding about why an area becomes a core interest for China may need reconsideration. Similarly, this opens up questions about the interpretation of national power in the case of China.

Much of the confusion over the interpretation of the Tibetan position in China's politics is domestic in origin. Chinese presentations about the Tibetan region almost always stress its insignificance—they focus on it in terms of its 'minorities', they always describe it as 'remote', they refer to its positive aspects in terms of 'soft' issues like culture and exoticism, and they attribute its problems and challenges either to outsiders or to historical 'contradictions', by which is meant its 'backwardness'. But representation by the state and the majority population is not an indication of whether or not an area or an issue is important; it is in the interests of the state to project and to believe such images, especially if in fact it is experienced as a vulnerability. It seems to me that, at least until recently, China has long treated Tibet as being of exceptional importance while indicating the opposite whenever possible.

It also seems that this discrepancy has not been noticed by us, the outside world. This is surely due in part to western histories of exoticization and paternalism, which predispose us to see this area as peripheral and insignificant other than for spiritual adventurers and the like. But it could also be because as outsiders we tend to think of China as China tells us publicly to do; in certain respects we follow broadly the script as it is delivered.[3] But in the last two years, China's public rhetoric about Tibet has changed and so have external views of that issue: suddenly, international attention is being paid to the tense relations between India and China along the Tibetan border. Press reports have abruptly proliferated concerning Tibet's predominant role in Asia's water supply—at least eight of the most important rivers in Asia, including the Mekong, Salween, Yellow, Yangtse and the Brahmaputra rivers, feeding perhaps a fifth of the world's population, have their sources and their headwaters on the Tibetan plateau. China faces major water and hydro-power shortages that are already leading to cross-border anxieties, as we have seen with the downstream Mekong states and with India over plans to dam the upper Brahmaputra in Tibet. Although climate change is a new issue, energy security, water shortages, and border tensions with India were not. So it is striking that international views of Tibet's geostrategic significance have only recently begun to change.

Perceptions of China's Foreign Policy Priorities

This is not, of course, an argument that Tibet is the most important issue for China, or that it should replace discussions of China's growing role in the South China Seas. I'm using it as an example of a characteristic found in foreign thinking about China, where a strongly held and probably derivative view about its driving interests becomes canonical, and only later appears to have been presumptive or premature, or at least unsure.

We could take larger examples. The China-India relationship, for example, is little studied in the West. We all know there was a major war between the two in 1962. Yet there are few experts who study relations between these two powers, let alone Sinologists who study both China-US relations and China-India relations. Ben Simpfendorfer has made a similar argument concerning China-Middle East relations.[4] This is not just an academic question, and not just because the academy compartmentalizes experts in different parts of a campus—on some of these topics, there are few if any experts, or few who are given media exposure. Thus the Indo-China War of 1962 is well known, but the major military face-off between the two sides in 1987 has tended to be forgotten.

The same may be true of China's relations with Pakistan. A recent opinion piece in The New York Times created considerable impact by stating that China has stationed up to 11,000 soldiers in Pakistan and had taken de facto control of the Gilgit-Baltistan region.[5] But such reports remain controversial and difficult for the public to evaluate because of the dearth of studies on China's long-term involvement there; the author later revised his description of these men as soldiers. As for China's role in Central Asia, some important scholarship is now emerging, but it is relatively new and was galvanized in part largely by the formation in 1996 of the Shanghai Five, which later became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Much of the foreign response to that project has been either dismissive or alarmist. Serious English-language studies of China's role in Central Asia are emerging, but are relatively few given the growing importance of the issue.

This suggests a preponderance of attention on maritime aspects of China's foreign relations, with only a secondary interest in land-based power, if that. This uneven pattern in attention and study is not exclusively an American or European condition, a result of in-built Orientalism. Indian scholarship, for example, also reflects an unexpected selectivity in its range of studies: given that China is India's neighbour, with thousands of miles of shared and disputed territory and a history of recent war, there are surprisingly few scholars in India who know Chinese and study China, and most who do are military analysts. There are even fewer who study Tibet, traditional or modern, even though it is India's immediate neighbor and by far the largest presence on its northern border; it would be as if Britain had no French-speakers or the United States no scholars of Latin American history. In this, India is not alone. Study, media focus and political attention tend not to follow rationalist criteria such as who is one's most powerful and most threatening neighbour. There are other factors at play—colonial histories, trade flows, cultural links, the distortions of globalization and its selectivities, and so on. Allocations of intellectual resources are not decisions that are reached through discussion, debate or pragmatism; they do not reflect a hierarchy of actual needs. They evolve because of unnoticed, unacknowledged lacunae and absences in perception.

What are the reasons for shifts in our perceptions as scholars and in our evaluations of this kind? We could speculate that they follow a home government's strategies at the time, or that they are driven by a kind of embedded nationalism in our outlooks that as academics, we would probably not want to recognise. The emergence of Area Studies in the West and their relation to government priorities in the aftermath of World War II has been widely written about. In this case, India again can serve as an example: no US president visited India for two decades until Clinton in 2000, and during that time, when it was part of the Soviet alliance, its China relations were little studied in the US. The period of unconcern roughly matches US strategic priorities.

But it could also be that we think of political importance and primary modes of power in pre-scripted ways, and that certain signifiers and motifs, acquired through historical experience and convention, are already seen as having inherent importance and priority in regional affairs. Are these choices leading us to miss something about China generally, as seems to have happened with western academic readings of Tibet? Are there systemic failures of foreign scholarly perception in the assessments of a nation's values, internal logic and priorities?

Owen Lattimore and the Concept of the Frontier

One of those who wrote in depth about this question was the great scholar of Central Asia and China, Owen Lattimore (1900-89). Lattimore is remembered now for having been a lead target during the McCarthy purges of the 1950s, when he was accused of being 'the top Russian espionage agent in the United States'. No evidence was found and the charges were dropped, but he spent much of his later life at the University of Leeds in Britain. But long before that, in the 1930s, Lattimore had addressed this question about western interpretations of China's power and its capacity to expand. He brought a unique approach and series of skills to understanding these issues. He spoke and read Chinese and Mongolian, as well as having a reading knowledge of German, French, Russian and other languages; he lived and travelled with Mongol traders and nomads; he was perhaps the first English-speaking scholar to write about them in depth; and he based his arguments on actual knowledge of the land and the people.

Lattimore discussed the question of western thinking about China's larger role in history in the introduction to the 1951 edition of his classic study, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, which had first appeared in 1939. His approach was broadly speaking Braudelian: he looked at the longue durée, and he saw a history shaped not by emperors or armies, but primarily by environment, technology and geography. He called his work 'historical geography', but it was a kind of forerunner of what we now call 'World History'. He opposed geographical determinism and was somewhat critical of Toynbee and Wittfogel, and suspicious of linear as well as of cyclical models. What he was interested in was interaction—the adaptation of societies to multiple factors interacting upon one another at the same time and through history. He started with a realization that has since been rediscovered and become fashionable: that empires and nation-states are starkly different forms of political and ideological organization. In particular, he developed what is now the standard view of borders:


The concept of a linear boundary could never be established as an absolute geographical fact. That which was politically conceived as a sharp edge was persistently spread by the ebb and flow of history into a relatively broad and vague margin. [See Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, New York, American Geographical Society, Research Series No. 21, 2nd Edition, 1951 (1939), p.238]


He saw the Himalayas as an instance where, by creating the appearance of a firm border, 'geography comes to the aid of politics', and showed that that line too had only apparent solidity. Similarly, he noted that, just as the Great Wall of China is a series of many walls which never constituted a single line, so any defensive boundary in an imperial system, whether it be Rome, Britain, or the Qing, existed 'not only to keep the outsiders from getting in but to prevent the insiders from getting out' [Inner Asian Frontiers, pp.xlvi, 240). It aimed to deter its own subjects from drifting into another zone, such as lowland peasants who might move into nomadic lands and thus out of the orbit of the empire, becoming assets to those it excluded and its enemies.

Lattimore thought in terms not of borders or lines but of frontiers—indeterminate, shifting, porous areas of interaction. He looked particularly at those in the pastoral lands to the north and west of lowland China that at times had driven much of its history. A frontier, he wrote, 'represents the limit of growth of an imperial system'. It is the point at which economic and political management of an area has reached the fullest extent of sustainability for the rulers: to push one's rule, even indirect rule, beyond it, would be to set in motion dynamics—of which revenue and cost are only two—which are unsustainable and in some cases can cause the downfall of a system. For China, expansion to the south always opened the possibility of increased profit because of the potential for intensive agricultural exploitation, but in the north and north-west the lack of land suitable for irrigation meant that that economic model could not be sustained, and that those practicing 'un-Chinese' forms of production in those areas would have a weaker attachment to other Chinese. These dynamics led empires to the development of policies for dealing with the areas beyond their frontiers that seek to manage the peoples living there:


Outer-frontier policy develops into a search for methods by which the 'outer barbarians' can be neutralized, so that they neither press inward against the boundary nor draw out beyond it the interventionist activity of the boundary-maintaining state.[Inner Asian Frontiers , p.245]


This perception led Lattimore to formulate a zonal theory, in some ways similar to spheres of influence, in which an absolute boundary is transformed into a range of areas in which populations have varying affiliations to the boundary-maintaining state. Those living within but near the boundary see opportunities in closer relations with those outside it than are in the interests of the parent state; those outside the border can be enticed by a parent state, when it has sufficient resources to do so, through the cultivation of mutual interests to assist that state. Beyond them lie the peoples who would once have been perceived as 'unregenerate barbarians', and 'subsidies had therefore to be heavy since otherwise the "reservoir" tribes might join the tribes of the outer steppe instead of holding them off' [p.547]. The other option, often even more expensive, was to use the punitive expedition. Within this fluctuating system of relationships, always liable to flow in either direction, disputed border territories and marginal lands come to 'influence the trend of history' in areas far beyond their own, in Lattimore's view. In particular, they tend to make possible or undermine efforts at unification within the boundary-maintaining state.[p.423]

Lattimore on American Thinking

Lattimore's studies had convinced him of 'the increased and still rapidly increasing importance of the Inner Asian frontiers',[p.xxiii] a view that was scarcely contestable at the time, given the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Soviet annexation of Central Asia. Since then, the impressive rise of lowland China since the end of the Second World War has led to such views seeming anachronistic, if not fanciful. But it was for just such thinking that Lattimore critiqued American approaches to the role of China in the world.

In his view, conventional thinking in America, even before the Second World War, had failed to adjust to changes in the disposition of power in the world after the early twentieth century. America, he wrote in 1944, saw China's political arrangements and potential in terms of America's history, not China's:


American long-range thinking on the problems of the new and still-changing distribution of world power is still dangerously clouded by a lingering tradition of across-the-ocean thinking, a tradition with deep roots [in] the nineteenth century.[6]


Lattimore concurred with the theories of world history that saw it as a dynamic between land- and sea-based development, and viewed Eurasia as having been dominated until the late-fifteenth century by 'continental' development, meaning that movements of trade, power and conflict had been land-based, as with the Silk Road and the Mongol empire (though he noted that this had been a form of power projection that had not led to rapid transformation because slow-moving, long-distance, land-based trade in luxuries 'could not truly integrate Asia with Europe' and so 'did not alter the character of societies'). Conversely, he saw that major changes to social life and international relations had resulted from the maritime development associated with Columbus and his age, in which had begun 'the bulk transportation of raw materials, the processing of which transformed the economic activities and the social and political structure of whole nations' [Inner Asian Frontiers of China, p.xix].

But for Lattimore, this replacement of land- by sea-dominance failed to describe events of the twentieth century, which had seen the emergence of a new system of 'vast continental states'—Russia, India and China primarily, but also the US and Brazil in the Americas. These could not be conquered by a navy using a small land force, as the imperial powers had done in the nineteenth century, because these states had vast hinterlands, large populations, extensive resources and often fossil fuels. Naval and air power can 'contain', he said, 'but that is all.'[7] Even the atomic bomb, he later wrote, did not change this as a long-term development [Inner Asian Frontiers , p.xlix, n.3].

He was right that major naval powers like the British were about to disappear, and that the Japanese would fail to conquer China from the sea. But he was not thinking just in military terms. Questions of land power and sea power are not sufficient explanations for a historian, he wrote, and neither are politics: 'the real roots of history lie deeper'.


The determining consideration… is not the political factor alone but the working out in combination of all the complex potentialities of the new age. A crude isolation of political arguments is untenable… It is the Westernizing of China's own ancient civilization that will in fact be decisive.[Inner Asian Frontiers , p.8]


For him, bank loans, industrialization, railways, and the limitations of geography and environment were just as significant as 'the political factor'.

He thus rejected the crude substitutional algebra that considered sea to have replaced land as the major driver of power relations. He argued instead that the potential of terrestrial power projection had again become of fundamental importance, but now coexisted with maritime power and trade. The challenge facing the analyst therefore was to understand the balance and linkage between the two forces: 'The true problem of our time', he wrote, 'is to reach, as quickly as we can, an accurate understanding of the relation to each other of the "Columbus" and the "Marco Polo" factors that by their interaction shape the conditions under which we live.' [Inner Asian Frontiers , p.xxiii]

The question as to whether maritime or territorial power was more important was replaced in his approach by the concept of the geopolitical 'centre of gravity'. In his view that centre in Eurasia had shifted with the emergence of the USSR in the early twentieth century 'from somewhere near the Rhine to somewhere near the Urals', but 'with the end of the Second World War, the centre of gravity… shifted again from the Urals toward the Inner Asian Frontier.' [Inner Asian Frontiers , pp.xx-xxi] For scholars, this meant that there was a need to advance studies of land-locked Inner Asia 'until they match in depth and maturity our studies of the Asian countries and regions that we reach by ocean routes and enter through seaports'.[p.xxiii] Given the current situation in Afghanistan, such a view has to be taken seriously.

A Conclusion

How does Lattimore's approach help us with our question about useful ways in which we might consider issues of contemporary China and its power?

For one thing, his work established important guidelines for a methodology in studying foreign lands and cultures. In the first place, one can note the importance he attributed above all to field-work and knowledge acquired on the ground: research in however lofty a theory had to be combined with a detailed and lived understanding of everyday existence in the area of study. His method involved partly exhaustive reading and partly living with nomads and speaking with them. What was perhaps even more important about his approach was that he placed greater value in listening to local people than in speaking to them. He knew as much about different kinds of animal dung, the taste of soil from different areas, assessing camel's hooves, and how to find one's bearings while travelling at night, as he did about politics, economy and geography. This knowledge and the ways in which it was acquired was an integral element of his methodology, not an addition to it:


No one can travel long among the Mongols without becoming almost as much engrossed with their turbulent past as with the survivals of ancient nomad technique by which they live today. We, in our simple-minded, sentimental, twentieth-century, unrealistic way think of Mongols as wanderers and warriors. Why then these walls and cities in a land that seems the natural domain of the shepherd and the horseman? … These are problems that can best be studied from the back of a camel and in the tents of the people, traversing the wide landscape, learning a little of the subtle differences in environment and something of what they mean to a Mongol who lives in one banner or another.[8]


Secondly, his work requires us to question assumptions about which factors are significant in assessing the trajectory of states, nation or their interactions. In particular, the preoccupations of leaders at the time, the language that they and their followers use, or the intentions that they express, may not be a guide to describing or recognizing the historical, long-term forces that their decisions represent and bring into play. Personal intentions and declared opinions are not necessarily the key criteria for understanding the sources and effects of an actor's actions.

Thirdly, there was no question for him of assuming that a state's capital was the primary source of knowledge on that nation's situation simply because power and elite resources, intellectual or otherwise, were concentrated there. It would have appeared no less strange to him to imagine that steppe or oasis people are less significant historically or politically because they are few in number and are or were termed backward by the agricultural community and the metropolitan elites. His approach was based on the opposite assumptions.

Fourth, he insisted on looking at issues in terms of interaction, between environment, economy, ideas, power, technology and other forces. He took a complex view and would surely have cheered the word 'dynamics' in the title of our hosts' project here in Copenhagen, with its implication of complex, shifting, multi-directionality. It is probably only by using an approach such as his that we can make sense of what is perhaps the most striking feature of China's recent policies in Tibet: why, unlike earlier and successful efforts in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, has it not used agricultural settlement to pacify Tibet? Instead, what it has done there is to encourage short-term residence by traders in the towns, and increasingly to force the nomads there and in Inner Mongolia to become settled peoples. This is exactly the kind of structural transformation of society and its relations to the environment that Lattimore's historical geography was designed to study.

Fifth, the maritime pre-eminence of certain late-imperial and contemporary powers did not suggest to him that inland areas might not be as or more significant than the coastal and riverine cities. He invited his readers to think again and again about land—soil, crops, topography, rivers, irrigation, travel, transport, geography and space. More precisely, he reintroduced the concept of the 'inland' as a primary, ineluctable element in any serious discussion of political geography, no matter how far from the coast or capital it might lie.

We can sum up his work as, finally, a discussion of land. In public conversation about power today, land, specifically the inland and the landlocked, rarely has much prominence: strategic focus is on the coast. The term hinterland has come by definition to be associated with the marginal, the oblique, the secondary and the insignificant. Although Lattimore did not address this in his work, it is noteworthy that of the numerous wars that have taken place since 1945—numbers vary from eighty upwards—only a fraction, such as that over the Falklands, have been fought from the sea. Almost all those wars have been over inland borders, while at least fifteen of the forty-eight landlocked countries in the world have been the scene of wars in this same period. Nevertheless, contemporary focus tends to be primarily on the distribution of power across seas.

How does this relate to China and scholarly analysis of it today? At its simplest, it stands as a reminder of the primary importance for scholars and analysts of field work, language knowledge, complex interpretation, and deep immersion in events beyond the metropolitan centres of the state. It reminds us too that these issues are not particular to China, a race or an ideology, but enduring questions of historical geography in any area of the world. But perhaps of even greater importance is the set of tools it provides for understanding the current situation in eastern Eurasia. Frontier understanding enables us to see China as having finally made some progress at the integration of its western regions, a structural drive found in all versions of the empire or nation that in the past for technological reasons could never be quite achieved. This is signified primarily by the construction of railways towards the inner areas and by infrastructural penetration, particularly the completion of the railway to Lhasa in 2006, much as in Lattimore's time he saw the key development as the extension of railways into Manchuria. We can also see now that mining and the exploitation of fossil fuels are becoming a major force in this expansion of the central state into Tibet, as they are already in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.

But at the same time, we can see that this penetration into and across those areas is not accompanied yet by industrialization, which, Lattimore argued, is 'the only bridge that can really integrate a society that is essentially agricultural with one that is essentially pastoral.'[Inner Asian Frontiers , p.549] This is a strategy that China has not applied in Tibet and it has not achieved a flattening of the cultural terrain or created a sense of mutual recognition between former nomadic peoples and the agriculturalists of the Chinese lowlands. It is evident that the border peoples show signs of the dangerously fluid, centrifugal nature of their situation, equally liable to become a force that disrupts the central nation as one that might facilitate the extension of its needs and interests into adjacent areas.

Lattimore's argument about outer-frontier policies—the range of measures from punitive expeditions and lavish titles for local leaders to ever-increasing subsidies—available to placate and win over border people describe both China's India and Vietnam wars up till 1979 and its economically-driven efforts since then in Tibet and other inner-border areas.

But it is his perception of a frontier as a series of zones that is likely to be most influential in current times. For what appears to have happened is that China's outer-frontiers have finally become inner-frontiers: the zone of restless peoples within the state's official boundaries are now sufficiently stabilized and reduced to manageable dimensions by levers of punishment, enticement and structural penetration that it can shift more of its attentions to the outer zones beyond the border, and can increasingly apply strategies to those areas that till now had been more usual within its borders. China's Xibu da kaifa ('Great Western Development') drive since 1999 is seen by scholars much as it is presented by state officials: as a catch-up policy for China to balance the economies of its two major regions, east and west. From the broader perspective, however, it is an attempt to turn a frontier into a region more akin to an inland area, to move it within the cost-effective zone of metropolitan rule, where costs are outweighed by benefits, and to get strategic access to the areas beyond the border.

As we have seen, the current pattern of China's power projection is to drive lines of power through its border areas and peoples rather than to spread successfully its ethos and interests among them. In this sense, it is thus largely irrelevant that for the time being the traditional inhabitants of those areas show considerable reluctance or resentment at the structural integration of their places and societies within the larger China: the technologies of railways, mines, roads, telecommunications, market-places and demographic shift no longer require their acquiescence. Instead, China seems to have achieved through infrastructural development the consolidation of its control over the former outer frontiers, namely the high steppes and oases areas, and their transformation into inner frontiers. This leaves them manageable more or less directly by the central state, but not integrated in the deeper sense—they remain distinct societies. But the contemporary Chinese state can decide, just as earlier emperors did, to set aside its aspiration to win the hearts and minds of peoples in these areas. The idealistic effort of the new Chinese leadership from the late 1950s until recently to create a citizenry in these areas that would think itself to be Chinese in cultural and political ways now appears a temporary deviation from a much longer history, and is an effort that is likely in the future gradually to be diminished.

In this view, it is the smaller states or regions that are China's inland neighbours that can be seen as having come gradually to play the role of outer-frontier areas. They constitute the middle zone of outer peoples that can sometimes be turned through interest-cultivation to 'face the other way', as Lattimore put it, meaning that they come to act, reluctantly or otherwise, in one's own interests rather than those of the powers in the farther zone. This 'neutralizing policy' can be seen in practice in China's current relations with the Central Asian states, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, and arguably with South-east Asian neighbours too. It is particularly visible in the abrupt changes in China's role in Nepal, which now appears to be accepting Chinese policing within its borders in the pursuit of Tibetan refugees.

Kashmir (which in internal documents is routinely listed by China as a separate country) and Bhutan are within India's zone, and relations with Korea represent yet different forms of outer-frontier management. The giant neighbouring land powers, India and Russia, have other roles, but the regions of those states that border with China may in due course become outer frontiers too, or perhaps have already done so in the Russian Far East. In those zones, trade, bank loans, and influence, as well as pipelines, will be important, rather than military power:


In general terms, …it can be said of the Roman, Chinese, and British-Indian empires that the method that worked best was one of enlisting the services of the very tribes that were supposedly excluded by the boundary… a compromise between the interests of the boundary-maintaining state, the interests of particular groups [living close to the border] within the state, and the interests of the border tribal groups.[Inner Asian Frontiers, pp.244-5]


This could well be used as a description of China's relationship with the SCO as well with its smaller South Asian and South-east Asian neighbours. This relationship can be fraught and locally contested, as indicated by Alexander Lukin's critique of the SCO, which he described as driven by 'the aggressive and selfish manner of China to uphold its trade interests, not always taking its partners' interests into account' so that it has come to 'strongly reflect the norms, serve the interests, and spread the influence of Chinese foreign policy in Eurasia.'[9] Similar anxieties, at least about trade relations with China, are regularly voiced in India and South-east Asia. But at the level of state decision-making, such relations have already become the norm in these smaller land-based neighbours, where policy-making elites already tend to see acquiescence to China's interests as beneficial to their interests or at least as inevitable.

Lattimore's theory about empires before the late-twentieth century was anti-expansionist: as he saw it, they could rarely afford to expand beyond their frontiers, because of reaching unsustainable costs and for fear of losing their inner-wall subjects to areas and peoples 'beyond their walls' who would then have an interest in turning against them. But he was writing of empires that were not nation-states. Radical changes have taken place since his time: modern China and its counterparts produce citizens, not subjects, whose loyalty is already pre-encoded and rigidified even if they go beyond the frontiers. Communications of the modern kind facilitate this kind of travelling citizenship and the export of national identities beyond the home locale. Trade and the export of traders across the border in these conditions becomes a much more viable and influential tool of penetration, especially given the vastly enhanced mobility in both directions provided by modern infrastructure. It is likely to be more efficient as a means of non-military power projection than its junior cousin, 'soft power' and is certainly less destablizing than any military intervention.

Contemporary China can therefore, we can postulate, project itself beyond its traditional land borders in Inner Asia and South Asia in ways that Lattimore might not have documented in his time, but which he would immediately have recognized. As the economics of inland trade are revolutionized by changes in transport and in energy supply, borders become more porous and more strategically potent in their impact on surrounding states and regions as a whole. As the limits of nineteenth century forms of power projection are realized, attention will increasingly shift to the role of land-power and continental resources and to their interaction with their maritime equivalents. In these conditions, scholarly analysis is likely too to relocate its focus to centres of gravity that might lie far from coasts and capitals, to reassess the role of so-called peripheral and marginal territories on larger states, and to accelerate the study of inland areas. In this process, Lattimore's approach offers important ways in which we can try to reconfigure our understanding of China, inland borders, and the complex, shifting disposition of power in the modern world.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] Secretary Clinton reported that she had been told this by China's leading State Councillor and negotiator, Dai Bingguo. See Carl, Thayer, 'Recent Developments in the South China Sea: Implications for Regional Security', paper delivered at the 2nd International Workshop on The South China Sea: Cooperation for Regional Security and Development, 10-12 November 2010, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Online at:

[2] 'Milestone in Tibet's Reform, Development, and Stability', People's Daily, 19 July 2001.

[3] See the discussion of guoqing and of Stephen Fitzgerald's notion of 'the syndrome of Marco Polo' in Geremie R Barmé, 'Australia and China in the World: Whose Literacy?', Inaugural Annual Lecture, Australian Centre on China in the World, delivered at the Australian National University on 15 July 2011. Online at:

[4] See Ben Simpfendorfer, The New Silk Road Economy: How a Rising Arab World is Turning Away from the West and Rediscovering China, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[5] Selig S. Harrison, 'China's Discreet Hold on Pakistan's Northern Borderlands', The New York Times, 26 August 2010.

[6] From 'The Inland Crossroads of Asia', in Wegert and Stefansson, eds, Compass of the World, New York: Macmillan, 1944, p.379; and, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, 2nd edition, p.xxi.

[7] 'The ultimate balance of power between Russia and Japan', Lattimore wrote, 'is not a question of the exposed position of Vladivostok. It is a question of the deep Siberian bases from which Soviet power could defy any such challenge and project a far more formidable counter-challenge.'[1951, p.xxii] Echoes of this view can be seen in the logic of Mao's 'Third Line'.

[8] From Owen Lattimore, Mongol Journeys, Kathmandu: Pilgrims, 2006 (1941), p.116. Cited in Daniel Miller and Dennis Sheehy, 'The Relevance of Owen Lattimore's Writings for Nomadic Pastoralism Research and Development in Inner Asia', Nomadic Peoples, Vol.12, No.2 (Winter 2008): 103-115, at p.13.

[9] Alexander Lukin, 'The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: What Next?', Russia in Global Affairs, Vol.5, No.3, 2007: 140-156. See also Chien-Peng Chung, 'China and the Institutionalization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization', Problems of Post-Communism, 53(5), 2006: 3-14.

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