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Rediscovering continentalism: the new geographic foundations of Chinese power

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A Correction to this article was published on 02 April 2021

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… geography is important as a source of limitation upon, and opportunity for, the power of states….

--- Colin S. Gray (2006, 148).


There has been a momentous shift in China’s international strategy towards a continental orientation since the early 2010s. Underpinning this geostrategic reorientation is a new continentalism expressed in a growing sense of optimism about China’s geopolitical potential in the continental direction. This emerging continentalism is in keeping with an expansionist foreign policy line that has paved the way for a geostrategic outlook oriented towards expansion. As an unstated geostrategic doctrine, this expansionist continentalism serves to provide a new sense of direction for Chinese geostrategy and reflects a reappraisal of the relevance of continental geography for expansionist ends.

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  1. In this essay, Eurasia refers to the entire continental land mass of Asia and Europe in the geographical sense; it should not be confused with the vaguely defined geopolitical conception of the broad region covering Russia and the post-Soviet space (Russia’s ‘near-abroad’, or the Eurasian heartland so to speak, stretching from Eastern Europe, across the Caspian Sea region and the Caucasus, to Central Asia).

  2. For the purposes of this study, the Xi Jinping era refers to the period of Xi Jinping’s rule beginning from the 18th Party Congress.

  3. As a geopolitical concept, the term ‘continentalism’ has never been clearly defined in geopolitical studies or International Relations. One could hardly find any entries for this term in the relevant English-language subject dictionaries.

  4. See footnote 1.

  5. ‘Continentalism’ is also a much-neglected concept in geopolitical studies and International Relations, where the related idea of ‘land power’ seems more prevalent.

  6. Scholars are not agreed on the meaning of the term ‘geostrategy’. For the purposes of this analysis, geostrategy is defined as an international strategy for the strategic application of state power within the spatial framework of physical, political and economic geography.

  7. Until the recent military reforms, the most obvious indications of this continental orientation of the Chinese military establishment are the dominance of the army in PLA force structure and command system.

  8. This deliberate focus on the international dimension is broadly consistent with the definition of ‘geostrategy’ as set out in footnote 15.

  9. This is what Yang Jiechi has called ‘the general principle of seeking progress while maintaining stability’ (wenzhong qiujin de gongzuo zongjidiao, 稳中求进的工作总基调) (2017).

  10. There tends to be elements of both continuity and change in Chinese official discourse on foreign policy. This is partly because it is not a common practice for the Communist Party to publicise dissent on foreign policy matters. More importantly, changes in Chinese foreign policy tends to be more evolutionary and revolutionary. As already noted, Xi’s foreign policy entrepreneurship, however dramatic or innovative, does not amount to a clean break with the past, even less a complete policy reversal.

  11. For instance, elements of continuity can still be found in the Xinhua News report on Xi Jinping’s first Central Conference on Foreign Affairs held in 2014 (2014). Tellingly, in the Xinhua News report on Xi Jinping’s second Central Conference on Foreign Affairs held in 2018 (2018), those Dengist elements have been dropped altogether.

  12. Wang Jisi was unequivocal in suggesting that during the Q&A session following his talk on Chinese diplomacy and the idea of ‘Harmonious World’ at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2006.

  13. The convening of the first-ever Conference on the Diplomatic Work with Neighbouring Countries in October 2013 is a testament to the elevated status of neighbourhood diplomacy.

  14. See Gao Cheng’s remarks in Xu et al. (2014, 16).

  15. For instance, a policy conference was organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in March 2013 to discuss specifically the question of ‘westward advance’ (Zhan 2013).

    Another example was the policy conference held in Yunnan in September 2013, which discussed China’s westward opening strategy from a geostrategic perspective and Yunnan’s special role in that process (Lin and Zheng 2014).

  16. It might possibly be the case that Wang’s proposition itself was part of the intellectual mobilisation in concert with Beijing’s tentative steps towards westward opening-up in 2012, as the idea was echoed by supporters of the westward opening-up policy. See Xiao 2013; Zhao M 2013; Zhan 2013; Lin and Zheng 2014.

  17. See the NDRC’s introduction of the role of the Department of Regional Opening, which was tasked with the day-to-day operation of the Executive Office of the Belt and Road Leading Group:

  18. Similar views had already appeared in the writings of earlier generations of continentalists. Back in the mid-2000 s, Ye Xiaowen was already putting forward the argument that China’s continental geography and pivotal position along the Eurasian Continental Bridge connecting Europe and Asia constituted a great geo-advantage (2004b).

  19. This changing outlook is also acknowledged by some Western observers who contend China’s Eurasian pivot ‘seeks to turn its vulnerability—a border with fourteen nations—into a strategic asset’. See Burrows and Manning 2015.

  20. An unmistakable sign of China’s dual aspiration for continental and maritime pre-eminence is the equal importance attached to the overland Belt and maritime Road programmes, which entails Beijing’s expansionist ambitions in both continental and maritime contexts.


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Zheng, Y. Rediscovering continentalism: the new geographic foundations of Chinese power. Int Polit 58, 188–222 (2021).

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