In his September-October 2011 Foreign Policy article (“The South China Sea is the future of conflict”) Robert D. Kaplan clearly outlined the importance of the South China Sea, which will make it the convergent point of conflict between the US and China.
A national security and geopolitics expert, Kaplan is the author of many books on these topics and is a member of the Defense Policy Board of the US Defense Department. The US Army’s Special Forces, the United States Marines, and the United States Air Force have tapped Kaplan as their consultant. Per Wikipedia, he also “lectured at the military war colleges, the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, major universities, the CIA, and business forums, and has appeared on PBS, NPR, C-Span, and Fox News. He is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Kaplan explains: “Europe is a landscape; East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st 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 exposed to the inexorable march of armies. But over the span of the decades, the demographic and economic axis of the Earth has shifted measurably to the opposite end of Eurasia, where the spaces between major population centers are overwhelmingly maritime.”
He added: “Because of the way geography illuminates and sets priorities, these physical contours of East Asia augur a naval century — naval being defined here in the broad sense to include both sea and air battle formations now that they have become increasingly inextricable. Why? China, which, especially now that its land borders are more secure than at any time since the height of the Qing dynasty at the end of the 18th century, is engaged in an undeniable naval expansion. It is through sea power that China will psychologically erase two centuries of foreign transgressions on its territory — forcing every country around it to react.”
Kaplan describes the theatre of conflict: “East Asia, or more precisely the Western Pacific, which is quickly becoming the world’s new center of naval activity, presages a fundamentally different dynamic. It will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula as the striking exception. The Western Pacific will return military affairs to the narrow realm of defense experts. This is not merely because we are dealing with a naval realm, in which civilians are not present. It is also because of the nature of the states themselves in East Asia, which, like China, may be strongly authoritarian but in most cases are not tyrannical or deeply inhumane.”
To establish the geostrategic value of the South China Sea, Kaplan wrote: “The South China Sea joins the Southeast Asian states with the Western Pacific, functioning as the throat of global sea routes. Here is the center of maritime Eurasia, punctuated by the straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar. More than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic. The oil transported through the Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is more than six times the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 17 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 about 80 percent of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea. What’s more, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a potentially huge bounty.”
He described the emerging alignments: “The result is that all nine states that touch the South China Sea are more or less arrayed against China and therefore dependent on the United States for diplomatic and military support. These conflicting claims are likely to become even more acute as Asia’s spiraling energy demands — energy consumption is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half that growth — make the South China Sea the ever more central guarantor of the region’s economic strength. Already, the South China Sea has increasingly become an armed camp, as the claimants build up and modernize their navies, even as the scramble for islands and reefs in recent decades is mostly over. China has so far confiscated 12 geographical features, Taiwan one, Vietnam 25, the Philippines eight, and Malaysia five.”
Kaplan doesn’t think that China will be a monster to fear. He wrote: “Nothing on the scale of ethnic cleansing is likely to occur in this new central theater of conflict. China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury. The Chinese regime demonstrates only 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.”
To reinforce his point, Kaplan quotes Hugh White, an Australian professor of strategic studies who wrote: “China’s conception of itself is that of a benign, non-hegemonic power, one that does not interfere in the domestic philosophies of other states in the way the United States — with its busybody morality — does. Because China sees itself as the Middle Kingdom, its basis of dominance is its own inherent centrality to world history, rather than any system it seeks to export.”
We certainly hope that Kaplan and White have correctly assessed China’s disposition. Between the US and China, it is the US that we must fear more because it has consistently pursued an imperial foreign policy. We’ve learned from history that violent conflicts can still erupt even if the combatants didn’t intend to go to war.
Perspectives of geopolitical experts like Robert D. Kaplan are rarely discussed in our media despite the severe and immeasurable impact the looming South China Sea conflict will have on our country.
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