Kaplan / ASIA'S CAULDRON
The Humanist Dilemma
Europe is a landscape; East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The most contested areas of the globe in the last century lay on dry land in Europe, particularly in the flat expanse that rendered the eastern and western borders of Germany artificial, and thus exposed to the intensive to-ing and fro-ing of armies. But starting in the last phase of the Cold War the demographic, economic, and military axis of the earth has measurably shifted to the opposite end of Eurasia, where the spaces between the principal nodes of population are overwhelmingly maritime. By maritime I mean sea, air, and outer space: for ever since the emergence of aircraft carriers in the early decades of the twentieth century, sea and air battle formations have become increasingly inextricable, with outer space now added to the mix because of navigational and other assistance to ships and planes from satellites. Hence naval has become shorthand for several dimensions of military activity. And make no mistake, naval is the operative word. Because of the way that geography illuminates and sets priorities, the physical contours of East Asia argue for a naval century, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula being the striking exception.
East Asia is a vast, yawning expanse, stretching from Arctic to Antarctic reaches—from the Kuril Islands southward to New Zealand—and characterized by a shattered array of coastlines and archipelagoes, themselves separated by great seas and distances. Even accounting for the fact of how technology has compressed distance, with missiles and fighter jets—the latter easily refueled in the air—rendering any geography closed and claustrophobic, the sea acts as a barrier to aggression, at least to the degree that dry land does not. The sea, unlike land, creates clearly defined borders, and thus has the potential to reduce conflict. Then there is speed to consider. Even the fastest warships travel comparatively slowly, 35 knots, say, reducing the chance of miscalculations and thus giving diplomats more hours—and days even—to reconsider decisions. Moreover, navies and air forces simply do not occupy territory the way armies do. It is because of the seas around East Asia that the twenty-first century has a better chance than the twentieth of avoiding great military conflagrations.
Of course, East Asia has seen great military conflagrations in the twentieth century that the seas did not prevent: the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905); almost a half century of civil war in China that followed the collapse of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty; the conquests of Imperial Japan and World War II in the Pacific, which followed from them; the Korean War (1950–1953); the wars in Cambodia, Laos, and two in Vietnam involving the French and the Americans from the 1950s through the 1970s. What unites all of these conflicts is that each was organic to the formation of a state or empire, or similarly to the process of decolonization. A number of these conflicts were internal, contested by both conventional and unconventional ground forces, where navies played extremely limited roles. The fact that the grand geography of East Asia is primarily maritime had little impact on these essentially domestic wars. (I include Korea in this category: for the conflict between the North and the South was mainly fought on land, and was integral to the formation of separate states following the long Japanese occupation of 1910 to 1945.) But now the age of national consolidation throughout East Asia lies behind us. East Asian militaries, rather than focusing inward with low-tech armies, are focusing outward with high-tech navies and air forces. Yet as I will explain, they are not likely to reenact in terms of scale the naval conflicts of the Russo-Japanese War and World War II in the Pacific.
The Russo-Japanese War and the Pacific Theater in World War II were the upshots in significant measure of Japanese militarism, for which the seas offered no defense; in fact, the seas were fundamental to the expansion of an island nation that required large stores of oil from distant shores for its rampaging armed forces. But China, now the rising military power in the Pacific, demonstrates far less aggression than did Imperial Japan following the Meiji Restoration: even as China’s military (particularly its navy) expands, fascism as in Japan is almost surely not on the horizon in the Middle Kingdom. As for the comparison between China and Imperial Germany prior to World War I that many make, whereas Germany was primarily a land power, owing to the geography of Europe, China will be primarily a naval power, owing to the geography of East Asia. It is this geography, I repeat, that will foster the growth of navies, which, while a worrisome trend in its own right, is still not as worrisome as the growth of armies in continental Europe at the beginning of the last century.
Truly, military power is moving to Asia, but the worst of the twentieth century might be avoided, thanks generally to what the University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer calls the “stopping power of water.”1 Water, Mearsheimer explains, is an impediment to invasion because while a state can build a naval force and transport an army across the sea with it, such a state will find it much more difficult to land an army on a hostile shore, and then move it inland to subdue permanently a hostile population.
For example, the Taiwan Strait is only a hundred miles wide, making it one of the narrower waterways in the Western Pacific, but it is still almost four times wider than the English Channel, across which came the Allied invasion. China may in a decade or so be able to defeat Taiwan in a war, U.S. assistance to Taiwan notwithstanding. But occupying Taiwan would be far more difficult, and thus will likely never be attempted. This would not be the case if Taiwan were not an island with one hundred miles of water between it and the mainland. So it goes with the maritime distances between Japan and Korea, between South Korea and China, Japan’s Ryuku Islands and China, China’s Hainan Island and Vietnam, and so on. With postcolonial wars obviously no longer on the horizon, China however truculent is no Imperial Japan, and East Asia’s maritime geography argues in favor of naval competition but militates against amphibious landings in heavily populated areas.
What will this purely naval competition look like? To find out we must examine more closely the geography of East Asia.
East Asia can be divided into two general areas: Northeast Asia dominated by the Korean Peninsula, and Southeast Asia dominated by the South China Sea. Northeast Asia pivots on the destiny of North Korea, a totalitarian and hermitic state that combines communism with national fascism. Such a state has dim prospects in a world governed by rampant capitalism and electronic communication. Were North Korea to collapse, Chinese, American, and South Korean ground forces might meet up in the peninsula’s northern half in the mother of all humanitarian interventions, even as they carve out territory for themselves in the course of feeding the hungry. Naval issues would be distinctly secondary. But an eventual reunification of Korea would bring naval issues to the fore, with a Greater Korea, China, and Japan in delicate equipoise separated by the Sea of Japan and the Yellow and Bohai seas. In sum, because North Korea still exists, the Cold War phase of Northeast Asian history is not over, and thus land power will come to dominate the headlines in the area before sea power will.
Contrarily, Southeast Asia is already deep into a post–Cold War phase of history. That is what makes it so critical. Vietnam dominates the western shore of the South China Sea. Once the preeminent foreign symbol of domestic turmoil inside America, Vietnam has been—until recent years at least—a capitalist dynamo seeking closer military ties to the United States, in order to balance against China. China, consolidated as a dynastic state by Mao Zedong after decades of chaos, and made into the world’s most dynamic economy by the liberalizations of Deng Xiaoping, is now pressing outward with its navy to the First Island Chain in the Western Pacific. Then there is the demographic Muslim behemoth of Indonesia, which, having sustained endless decades of left- and right-wing authoritarian rule during the Cold War, could possibly emerge as a second “India,” that is, a vigorous and stable democracy that has the potential to project power through its growing economy. Singapore and Malaysia, meanwhile, move forward economically in devotion to the city-state-cum-trading-state model, through varying blends of democracy and authoritarianism. Therefore, the composite picture is of a cluster of states that, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state building mostly behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe: it is here in Southeast Asia, with its nearly 600 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographical meeting place of all these states is maritime: the South China Sea.
The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans—the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce. Here is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, punctuated by the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar straits. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide.2 The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea.3 Whereas in the Persian Gulf only energy is transported, in the South China Sea you have energy, finished goods, and unfinished goods.
In addition to centrality of location, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If Chinese calculations are correct that the South China Sea will ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil (and there is some serious doubt about these estimates), then the South China Sea contains more oil than any area of the globe except Saudi Arabia. Some Chinese observers have called the South China Sea “the second Persian Gulf.”4 If there really is so much oil in the South China Sea, then China will have partially alleviated its “Malacca dilemma”—its reliance on the narrow and vulnerable Strait of Malacca for so much of its energy needs coming from the Middle East. And the China National Offshore Oil Corporation has invested $20 billion in the belief that such amounts of oil really do exist in the South China Sea.5 China is desperate for new energy. Chinese oil reserves account for only 1.1 percent of the world total, while it consumes over 10 percent of world oil production and over 20 percent of all the energy consumed on the planet.6
It is not only location and energy reserves that promise to give the South China Sea critical geostrategic importance, it is the territorial disputes surrounding these waters, home to more than two hundred small islands, rocks, and coral reefs, only about three dozen of which are permanently above water. Yet these specks of land, buffeted by typhoons, are valuable mainly because of the oil and natural gas that might lie nearby in the intricate, folded layers of rock beneath the sea. Brunei claims a southern reef of the Spratly Islands. Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys. The Philippines claims eight islands in the Spratlys and significant portions of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Taiwan, and China each claims much of the South China Sea, as well as all of the Spratly and Paracel island groups. In the middle of 2010 there was quite a stir when China was said to have called the South China Sea a “core interest.” It turns out that Chinese officials never quite said that: no matter. Chinese maps have been consistent. Beijing claims to own what it calls its “historic line”: that is, the heart of the entire South China Sea in a grand loop—the “cow’s tongue” as the loop is called—surrounding these island groups from China’s Hainan Island south 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia. The result is that all of these littoral states are more or less arrayed against China, and dependent upon the United States for diplomatic and military backing. For example, Vietnam and Malaysia are seeking to divide all of the seabed and subsoil resources of the southern part of the South China Sea between mainland Southeast Asia and the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo: this has elicited a furious diplomatic response from China.7 These conflicting claims are likely to become more acute as energy consumption in developing Asian countries is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half of that growth.8
“Paradoxically, if the postmodern age is dominated by globalization,” writes the British naval expert Geoffrey Till, then “everything that supports” globalization, such as trade routes and energy deposits, becomes fraught with competition. And when it comes to trade routes, 90 percent of all commercial goods that travel from one continent to another do so by sea. This heightened maritime awareness that is a product of globalization comes at a time when a host of relatively new and independent states in Southeast Asia, which only recently have had the wherewithal to flex their muscles at sea, are making territorial claims against each other that in the days of the British Empire were never an issue, because of the supremacy of the Crown globally and its emphasis on free trade and freedom of navigation.9 This muscle flexing takes the form of “routinized” close encounters between warships of different nations at sea, creating an embryonic risk of armed conflict.10
One high-ranking official of a South China Sea littoral state was particularly blunt during an off-the-record conversation I had in 2011, saying, “The Chinese never give justifications for their claims. They have a real Middle Kingdom mentality, and are dead set against taking these disputes to court. China,” this official went on, “denies us our right on our own continental shelf. But we will not be treated like Tibet or Xinjiang.” This official said that China is as tough with a country like the Philippines as it is with Vietnam, because while the latter is historically and geographically in a state of intense competition with China, the former is just a weak state that can be intimidated. “There are just too many claimants to the waters in the South China Sea. The complexity of the issues mitigates against an overall solution, so China simply waits until it becomes stronger. Economically, all these countries will come to be dominated by China,” the official continued, unless of course the Chinese economy itself unravels. Once China’s underground submarine base is completed on Hainan Island, “China will be more able to do what it wants.” Meanwhile, more American naval vessels are visiting the area, “so the disputes are being internationalized.” Because there is no practical political or judicial solution, “we support the status quo.”
“If that fails, what is Plan B for dealing with China?” I asked.
“Plan B is the U.S. Navy—Pacific Command. But we will publicly remain neutral in any U.S.-China dispute.” To make certain that I got the message, this official said: “An American military presence is needed to countervail China, but we won’t vocalize that.” The withdrawal of even one U.S. aircraft carrier strike group from the Western Pacific is a “game changer.”
In the interim, the South China Sea has become an armed camp, even as the scramble for reefs is mostly over. China has confiscated twelve geographical features, Taiwan one, the Vietnamese twenty-one, the Malaysians five, and the Philippines nine. In other words, facts have already been created on the ground. Perhaps there can still be sharing arrangements for the oil and natural gas fields. But here it is unclear what, for instance, countries with contentious claims coupled with especially tense diplomatic relations like Vietnam and China will agree upon.
Take the Spratlys, with significant oil and natural gas deposits, which are claimed in full by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and in part by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. China has built concrete helipads and military structures on seven reefs and shoals. On Mischief Reef, which China occupied under the nose of the Philippine navy in the 1990s, China has constructed a three-story building and five octagonal concrete structures, all for military use. On Johnson Reef, China put up a structure armed with high-powered machine guns. Taiwan occupies Itu Aba Island, on which it has constructed dozens of buildings for military use, protected by hundreds of troops and twenty coastal guns. Vietnam occupies twenty-one islands on which it has built runways, piers, barracks, storage tanks, and gun emplacements. Malaysia and the Philippines, as stated, have five and nine sites respectively, occupied by naval detachments.11 Anyone who speculates that with globalization, territorial boundaries and fights for territory have lost their meaning should behold the South China Sea.
China’s position vis-à-vis the South China Sea is akin to America’s position vis-à-vis the Caribbean Sea in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United States recognized the presence and claims of European powers in the Caribbean, but sought to dominate the region, nevertheless. It was the Spanish-American War of 1898, fought primarily over Cuba, as well as the digging of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914, that signaled the arrival of the United States as a world power. This development, not coincidentally, occurred following the closure of the American frontier, with the last major battle of the Indian Wars fought in 1890. Moreover, it was domination of the Greater Caribbean Basin that gave the United States effective control of the Western Hemisphere, which, in turn, allowed it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. Perhaps likewise with China in the twenty-first century.
China, by way of its 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles focused on Taiwan and its 270 commercial flights a week to Taiwan, will be able to do an end run around Taiwanese sovereignty without needing to subdue it through a naval invasion. As with the closing of the American frontier, China’s effective capture of Taiwan in the years to come will allow Chinese naval planners the ability to finally concentrate their energies on the wider South China Sea, an antechamber to the Indian Ocean in which China also desires a naval presence, in order to protect its Middle Eastern energy supplies. Were China to ever replace the U.S. Navy as the dominant power in the South China Sea—or even reach parity with it—this would open up geostrategic possibilities for China comparable to what America achieved upon its dominance of the Caribbean.
To be sure, the South China Sea is no Caribbean. In fact, it is more important. The Caribbean was far from the main sea lines of communication, while the South China Sea is at the heart of them.
Because the South China Sea is where the sea lines of communication between the Horn of Africa and the Sea of Japan join together, the state that dominates the South China Sea will be a long way toward dominating the navigable rimland of the Eastern Hemisphere. Of course, the opposite is more likely to be the case: no one state will dominate the South China Sea. Another reason why the South China Sea is so important is that it is on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world.
The U.S. Navy presently dominates the South China Sea. But that situation will change. The size of the U.S. Navy has come down from almost six hundred warships in the Reagan era, to the mid–three hundreds during the Clinton era, to under three hundred now. It might go lower still by the 2020s, because of the retirement of current classes of submarines and surface warships, cost overruns, and future budget cuts, the result in turn of massive fiscal deficits. Meanwhile, the Chinese navy, the world’s second most powerful naval service, is growing rather dramatically. Rather than purchase warships across the board, China is developing niche capacities in subsurface warfare and ballistic missile technology (the DF-21 missile) designed to hit moving targets at sea, such as a U.S. aircraft carrier. If China expands its submarine fleet to 78 by 2020 as planned, it will be on par with the U.S. Navy’s undersea fleet in quantity.12 While the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet is completely nuclear, it requires that feature to sail halfway around the world, in order to get to East Asia in the first place, even as China’s diesel-electric submarines are supremely quiet and can hide better, therefore, in the congested littorals of East Asia. At some point, China is likely to, in effect, be able to deny the U.S. Navy unimpeded access to parts of the South China Sea.
Thus, as China’s navy gets stronger—its economy permitting—and China’s claim on the South China Sea—as demonstrated by its maps—contradict the claims of other littoral states, these other states will be forced to further develop their own naval capacities and to balance against China by relying increasingly on the U.S. Navy: a navy whose strength has probably peaked in relative terms, even as it must divert considerable resources to the Middle East. Worldwide multipolarity is already a feature of diplomacy and economics, but the South China Sea is poised to show us what multipolarity in a military sense actually looks like. Just as German soil constituted the military front line of the Cold War, the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military front line of the coming decades.
There is nothing romantic about this new front line. Whereas World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the Cold War a moral struggle against communism, the post–Cold War a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Levant, as well as a moral struggle against terrorism and in support of democracy, the South China Sea shows us a twenty-first-century world void of moral struggles, with all of their attendant fascination for humanists and intellectuals. Beyond the communist tyranny of North Korea, a Cold War relic, the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business. Even China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury.
The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China’s leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. These are not the decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world who have been overthrown. Rather than fascism or militarism, China, along with every state in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence, the rise even, of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, no doubt, but not one that since the mid-nineteenth century has been attractive to liberal humanists.
Nationalism in Europe during the 1800s denoted a moral community against imperial rule. Now the moral community for which intellectuals and journalists aspire is universal, encompassing all of humankind, so that nationalism, whose humanity is limited to a specific group, is viewed as reactionary almost. (This is partly why the media over the decades has been attracted to international organizations, be it the United Nations, the European Union, or NATO—because they offer a path beyond national sovereignty.) Yet, despite pan-national groupings like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), it is traditional nationalism that mainly drives politics in Asia, and will continue to do so. And that nationalism is leading to the modernization of militaries—navies and air forces especially—in order to defend sovereignty, with which to make claims for disputed maritime resources.
There are no philosophical questions to ponder in this new and somewhat sterile landscape of the twenty-first century. It is all about power; the balance of power mainly. While the language at Asian summits will be soft, the deployment of warships in disputed seas will be hard. Military engagements on land involve occupation of civilian populations, which lead often to human rights violations, so that foreign policy becomes a branch of Holocaust studies. But the application of sea power is a purely military matter. Unless shelling on shore is involved, the dead are usually all in naval uniform, and thus there are no victims per se. In the early twenty-first century, the South China Sea will continue to be at the heart of geopolitics, reminiscent of Central Europe in the twentieth century. But unlike Central Europe it will not constitute an intellectual or journalistic passion.
The separation of geopolitics from human rights issues, which were conjoined in the twentieth century in Europe, plus the degree of abstraction that surrounds the naval domain in any case, will help make the South China Sea the realm of policy and defense analysts, rather than of the intellectuals and the media elite. Realism, which is consciously amoral, focused as it is on interests rather than on values in a debased world, will therefore triumph. This is how the South China Sea will come to symbolize a humanist dilemma.
The great exception to this line of argument is the environment. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 took place in the vicinity of the South China Sea and claimed more victims than the Iraq War. Even absent global warming, the normal variations of climate and seismic activity in environmentally fragile areas, combined with continued absolute rises in coastal populations, will virtually guarantee occasional humanitarian disasters around the South China Sea in coming decades. Navies will need to respond. By responding in the grandiose manner that it did to the Indian Ocean tsunami, the U.S. military, led by an aircraft carrier strike group, applied soft power in a way that augmented its hard power. Namely, humanitarian assistance to Indonesia led to resumed ties with the Indonesian military that the United States had not enjoyed for years. The news coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami indicates how the South China Sea may appear to the world through the media’s distorting mirror. The experts will follow naval movements in these waters regularly, while the media will lavish prime-time attention on the region only in cases of natural catastrophe. But even in the midst of such catastrophes, in comparison to twentieth-century Europe, the human rights angle will be muted because while there will be victims, there will be no villains, except of course for Mother Nature. And without villains, moral choice that distinguishes between good and evil cannot operate, meaning that in a philosophical sense there will be comparatively little drama.
The moral drama that does occur will take the form of austere power politics, of the sort that leaves many intellectuals and journalists numb. Imagine the Melian Dialogue from the Fifth Book of Thucydides, but without the killing of the Melian menfolk, and without the enslavement of the children and womenfolk that followed—and that provided for the tragedy in the first place. In this revised Melian Dialogue for the twenty-first century: the Athenians, Greece’s preeminent sea power, tell the Melians that while Athens is strong, Melos is weak, and therefore must submit. As Thucydides writes, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”13 Thus, the Melians give in without violence. This will be China’s undeclared strategy, and the weaker countries of Southeast Asia may well bandwagon with the United States to avoid the Melians’ fate: in other words, power politics, almost mathematical in its abstractions, without war.
The Cold War excepted, the South China Sea presages a very different form of conflict than the ones to which we have become accustomed from World War I to Iraq and Syria. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, we have been traumatized by massive and conventional land engagements on one hand, and dirty, irregular small wars on the other. Because both kinds produced colossal civilian casualties, war, as I’ve said, has been the subject of humanists as well as of generals. But in the future we just might see a purer form of conflict (at least in East Asia), limited to the naval realm, with little for the intellectual journals of opinion to chew over: like the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, but without the prospect of land warfare. This is a positive scenario. For conflict cannot be eliminated from the human condition. A theme in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is that conflict, properly controlled, is more likely to lead to human progress than rigid stability. A sea crowded with warships does not contradict an era of great human progress for Asia.
Copyright © 2014 by Robert D. Kaplan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.