Interview with Robert D. Kaplan: The South China Sea and the Rise of China’s Commercial Empire

ROBERT D. KAPLAN is the bestselling author of fifteen books on foreign affairs and travel translated into many languages, including Asia’s Cauldron. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where his work has appeared for three decades. He was chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor, a visiting professor at the United States Naval Academy, and a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board.Foreign Policy magazine twice named him one of the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.”

(May 5, 2015) As the situation in the South China Sea heats up, we asked Robert D. Kaplan about China’s objectives, U.S.-China relations, and the emergence of a Chinese Empire.

Liberty: In your book, “Asia’s Cauldron”, you mentioned that China is attempting to do what the United States did in the Caribbean. But as you alluded to in your book, this came about through a confrontation between the United States and Spain.

What do you think is the logical conclusion of China’s current actions in the South China Sea, and the reaction of the regional powers against its actions? Do you foresee a Cold War emerging?

Robert D. Kaplan: The United States had been trying to gain dominance of the Caribbean since the early part of the 19th century, culminating with the building of the Panama Canal in the early 20th. It was a long process, and the war with Spain was only part of it.

And the real fundament to the process was that the Caribbean constituted the natural blue water extension of the United States’ temperate zone landmass. And I see something similar with China, whereas with the South, and to a lesser extent East China Seas, are the natural blue water extensions of China’s continental landmass.

The United States is a Pacific power because of two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, where the U.S. Navy is placed, etc. But China ultimately does not accept that. China feels, and it’s a geographic argument at root, that it should be dominant in its maritime near-abroad. So what this leads to is, I’m not sure if you would call it a Cold War, but certainly a constant, chronic competition between the United States and China in the South and East China Seas.

Liberty: Along that same line, it seems that the various nations in the area have similar geographical concerns. For example, if you look at the base that’s currently being built in what the Philippines call their own economic zone, it seems that these smaller nations have one of two choices. They can either resist China’s expansion or accept Chinese hegemony. Do you think that that could lead to a wider conflict in the region?

Robert D. Kaplan: What the small nations want, whether it’s Vietnam, or the Philippines, or Malaysia (though they can’t always say it, particularly in Malaysia’s case), is they want the United States’ Navy and Air Force as a balancing factor against China, so that China does not end up Finlandizing these smaller nations. That need not lead directly to a conflict with China.

In my opinion, China’s goal is to gradually reach parity with the U.S. Navy in its maritime near-abroad without ever having to fire a shot against the U.S. Navy, because it knows it will lose.

Liberty: In the future, could you envision a scenario where the U.S. Navy might not be able to guarantee freedom of navigation through the sea-lanes?

Robert D. Kaplan: That will depend on the size and deployments of the U.S. Navy going forward in the coming decades. The U.S. Navy is currently at about 290 warships. It is slated to go up over 300 in the coming years, but when you look further down the road towards decommissioning of old ships, etc., there are various budgetary scenarios out there whereby the U.S. Navy could remain the way it is or it could go significantly lower.

So, what happens eventually will depend on a lot of considerations, some of which are budgetary in Washington and have to do with domestic politics.

Liberty: And presumably it also has to do with whether or not China’s economic rise will continue.

Robert D. Kaplan: Yes, as I state in the end of the book, I raise the possibility that China’s economic rise may not continue, that China’s economy may be significantly weaker than most people imagine. So, there’s always that. It’s low probability/high consequence of a significant Chinese economic downturn that’s much greater than what we’ve seen so far.

Liberty: I think you mentioned that the main drivers of the geopolitics in East Asia are drawn by geography and business and such. That the ideological dimension does not seem to factor in as much as it did during the Cold War. Could you elaborate a little bit more?

Robert D. Kaplan: Yes, you have it right. Look, East Asia is about lines in the water, it’s about business, territorial rights, strong ethnic nations, and it’s about nationalism. It’s not about abstract philosophical ideas. East Asia does not have, not even in China, with North Korea of course as an exception, you have no really noxious regimes like you have had throughout the Middle East or throughout Africa.

Chinese authoritarianism, Malaysian authoritarianism under Mahathir, and early Singaporean authoritarianism under Lee Kwan Yew in his early years cannot fairly be compared to what we’ve seen in the Middle East under Saddam Hussein, the Assad family, or under Gaddafi. Those were truly horrible regimes that did nothing for their people. They were really suffocating systems, whereas the East Asian brand of authoritarianism has been far more enlightened. It has allowed personal freedoms, if not always political freedoms, and it has engendered significant economic growth over the past third of a century or more. People’s lives have dramatically improved in all respects except in China’s case, in being able to vote, under Asian authoritarianism. So that’s why the philosophical issue, the ideological aspect is muted in East Asia. North Korea, of course, is an exception, but even China is not happy with the North Korean regime. But China just doesn’t feel it’s in a position to undermine it.

Liberty: But is that the perception that the United States holds towards a “Communist China”? Is it possible that the U.S. would engage in a more confrontational approach with China due to philosophical or ideological differences?

Robert D. Kaplan: The United States’ “public” and politicians in Congress have a way of demonizing regimes, when sometimes it’s apt, and other times it’s not. I can certainly foresee an instance where the situation in the South China Sea gets hotter and hotter, meaning worse and worse, that you could see some demonization of China’s system by some members of Congress. I can see that, but that hasn’t happened yet. The United States, and U.S. Presidents of either party with Congressional support from both parties have worked hard at having a business-like relationship with China.

And it’s interesting that while in the Middle East, there’s a big difference between the two political parties in America, when it comes to China, ever since Nixon went to Beijing, the difference between the two parties on China policy has been muted because they both recognize that China is just too important to demonize. That the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China is the most important bilateral relationship in terms of world order in the 21st century thus far.

Liberty: Expanding on that world order, for the past 70 years the United States basically controlled the maritime lines of communication. Do you think the United States would, from a geopolitical standpoint, idly sit back and watch China encroach on U.S. hegemony?

Robert D. Kaplan: Here’s the problem. If you ask the President or any member of Congress that question, they would say “of course not, we will never let China undermine the sovereignty of our Allies, Japan, South Korea, all the way down to Australia”.

My worry is China will not do anything overt, because China is not Russia.
Russian aggression is guys with black ski masks and assault rifles. Russian aggression is far more visceral, it’s far more noticeable, and it gets people angry more.

China’s form of aggression is far more gradual and elegant. It’s four steps forward, two and a half steps backward, constantly testing things; sending an oil rig into Vietnamese waters, and pulling it back when there’s too much international condemnation, making sure not to engage the U.S. Navy in any confrontation, using Coast Guard vessels to make territorial claims rather than grey hulled warships. China has mastered the art of slow-moving, indirect encroaching hegemony.

What concerns me is that Congress and the White House, whoever is President, whichever Party controls Congress, is going to wake up one morning as if from a long sleep and see China in a much more strategically improved position in the Western Pacific than a few years earlier.

Liberty: Am I correct in assuming that China’s objective is to achieve hegemony from the East China Sea all the way to, let’s say the Middle East for example? Is there a point of no-return, where decisive action is taken by one or either side that could result in a confrontation?

Robert D. Kaplan: First of all, let’s remind ourselves again of the caveat of the crumbling Chinese economy, which we don’t know the outcome of. Nobody knows. Accepting that caveat, I don’t believe China seeks military hegemony over the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. I think what it’s seeking at the moment is eventual military hegemony over the South and East China Seas and a maritime empire, a commercial empire of sorts in the Indian Ocean stretching to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Going from a maritime commercial empire to a military empire is still a long stretch, but history shows one often follows from the other. And so their objectives regarding the Indian Ocean is long term, it’s gradual. The South China Sea and the East China Sea are here, they’re now.

I was in China recently. While I was in Xinjiang in the West, I read in the newspaper that President Xi announced a $46 billion dollar transport and economic aid process to essentially link the Pakistani port of Gwadar in the Indian Ocean with Xinjiang. Now that’s an incredible ambition.

I wrote about the possibility of this in my 2010 book “Monsoon” about the Indian Ocean, but I said this is for the long term. Well, Xi’s decision seems to say, well, maybe not. Maybe it’s for the middle term.

Where I’m real skeptical on this is that I’m not convinced the Pakistanis are going to be able to guarantee security for the Chinese through many parts of Pakistan. I just don’t see it. We’ll have to see over the long run, but the Chinese clearly have an ambition for what they call the maritime and land silk routes, which essentially is a commercial empire stretching deep into Central Asia to Iran and through the Indian Ocean.

Liberty: So, you do think, after that economic empire is built that they will try to establish a military hegemony?

Robert D. Kaplan: It’s not that they’ll try to establish, it’s that one tends to organically follow from the other. In other words, you have commercial merchant ships in a port, say Gwadar, say Hambantota, Sri Lanka. Sooner or later you want those ships protected, so you’ll have visits by your warships and that’s where it starts.

Liberty: Do you think at some point, if that actually happens, that they might, China may use their control of the maritime lines of communication as a political weapon if they want to coerce other nations to behave in a manner that’s more conducive to Chinese policy?

Robert D. Kaplan: Yes, I think all nations do this. All states use economic coercion in subtle and not so subtle forms whenever and however they can to get sympathetic solutions from other states. So, China is not different in this regard.

Liberty: I’m sure you’ve seen the news articles on the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Do you think that has any linkage to the geopolitical ambitions that China has in Asia?

Robert D. Kaplan: Yes, I think it does. Remember, China’s policy is far more organic and total than American policy.

For example, American companies may want to cooperate with U.S. government foreign policy, but it doesn’t mean that they will. For these companies, their bottom-line comes first.

In China’s case, that’s not so true. In China’s case, their major corporations really are, to a significant degree, arms of Chinese foreign policy. And economic trade initiatives are all linked up with war ship deployment, with building pipelines, roads, it’s much more of a focused grand strategy than what we see coming out of the States.

Interview with Robert D. Kaplan: The South China Sea and the Rise of China’s Commercial Empire
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