The English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder ended his famous 1904 article, "The Geographical Pivot of History," with a disturbing reference to China. After explaining why Eurasia was the geostrategic fulcrum of world power, he posited that the Chinese, should they expand their power well beyond their borders, "might constitute the yellow peril to the world's freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent, an advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region." Leaving aside the sentiment's racism, which was common for the era, as well as the hysterics sparked by the rise of a non-Western power at any time, Mackinder had a point: whereas Russia, that other Eurasian giant, basically was, and is still, a land power with an oceanic front blocked by ice, China, owing to a 9,000-mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, is both a land power and a sea power. (Mackinder actually feared that China might one day conquer Russia.) China's virtual reach extends from Central Asia, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean. Later, in Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder predicted that along with the United States and the United Kingdom, China would eventually guide the world by "building for a quarter of humanity a new civilization, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western."
China's blessed geography is so obvious a point that it tends to get overlooked in discussions of the country's economic dynamism and national assertiveness. Yet it is essential: it means that China will stand at the hub of geopolitics even if the country's path toward global power is not necessarily linear. (China has routinely had GDP growth rates of more than ten percent annually over the past 30 years, but they almost certainly cannot last another 30.) China combines an extreme, Western-style modernity with a "hydraulic civilization" (a term coined by the historian Karl Wittfogel to describe societies that exercise centralized control over irrigation)