The Spatial Fix

‘In the face of profound domestic and international challenges, we must be calm and determined, seek stable progress and act proactively, unite and dare to fight.’[1] In March 2023, Xi Jinping spoke these words to an audience of top Chinese officials. The contrast with former leader Deng Xiaoping’s view that China should conceal strength, bide time, and ‘not claim leadership’ was stark.[2] Yet, Xi’s statement was not a repudiation of Deng’s but an indication Beijing’s geostrategy has entered a new phase.

Shortly thereafter, Xi departed to meet Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. After then signing off on USD 165 billion of deals across 80 bilateral projects,[3] Xi lauded the partnership as driving ‘changes not seen in one hundred years.’[4] And with Russia’s European integration prospects now dashed, what started as a marriage of convenience is being consummated by new pipelines, grain terminals, and trade corridors. Until 2022, analysts claimed the Russia-China alignment carried too much baggage to succeed. But the rules of the global order are being rewritten. And when the facts change, the conclusions must follow.

The lights that failed

Politicians play the cards they’re dealt. In April 1997, a similar leaders’ meeting took place at the Kremlin. As Boris Yeltsin hosted Jiang Zemin, both jointly declared commitment to a ‘multipolar world… without hegemony’, denouncing the ‘monopolisation’ of world affairs, presumably by the United States.[5] But at the height of the ‘unipolar moment’, there was little either could do about it other than stay out of each other’s way.

Figure 1: China, Special Economic Zones.

Forgoing interior development and Central Asian expansion, China pursued a development strategy centred on export-oriented manufacturing, concentrated in its coastal Special Economic Zones.[6]