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Chinese internal border zones are empty and barren, and nearly impossible to guard. The distances involved makes fixed fortifications pointless, while the dryness keeps populations thin. But they are exceedingly easy to cross if you’ve got some spare time. This open grassland in Inner Mongolia is representative of China’s age-old problem: consolidation is nearly as impossible as defense. From both land and sea, China is insecure.

More consolidated – and more defensible – powers as varied as Taipei, Tokyo, Moscow and London long have made the most of Chinese geography (for themselves).

For more on how China’s geography was overcome, and how it is about to return, see Chapter 14 of The Accidental Superpower.