Robert Kaplan, writing in Foreign Policy, describes the South China Sea as the fulcrum of the Pacific. What happens there is the bellweather of who dominates the Pacific’s 21st century: China or the United States. On it depends more than who rules. It may determine whether the way forward is peaceful or conflicted.
A glance at the map of Asia shows its singular geography. Paralleling the actual coast of the Asian continent is a second coast, separated from the real mainland by straits and narrow seas. Running north from the Malay barrier, it goes past the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and finally to the virtual offshore/onshore outpost of South Korea. If Western Europe was America’s frontier across the Atlantic, the outer coast of Asia has long been its own Pacific boundary. Kaplan writes:
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. As China’s navy becomes stronger and as China’s claim on the South China Sea contradicts those of other littoral states, these other states will be forced to further develop their naval capacities. They will also balance against China by relying increasingly on the U.S. 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 could show us what multipolarity in a military sense actually looks like. …
But can conflict in the South China Sea be properly controlled? My argument thus far presupposes that major warfare will not break out in the area and that instead countries will be content to jockey for position with their warships on the high seas, while making competing claims for natural resources and perhaps even agreeing to a fair distribution of them. But what if China were, against all evidential trends, to invade Taiwan? What if China and Vietnam, whose intense rivalry reaches far back into history, go to war as they did in 1979, with more lethal weaponry this time? For it isn’t just China that is dramatically building its military; Southeast Asian countries are as well. Their defense budgets have increased by about a third in the past decade, even as European defense budgets have declined. Arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have gone up 84 percent, 146 percent, and 722 percent, respectively, since 2000. The spending is on naval and air platforms: surface warships, submarines with advanced missile systems, and long-range fighter jets. Vietnam recently spent $2 billion on six state-of-the-art Kilo-class Russian submarines and $1 billion on Russian fighter jets. Malaysia just opened a submarine base on Borneo. While the United States has been distracted by land wars in the greater Middle East, military power has been quietly shifting from Europe to Asia.
For decades America’s goal has been to control the “outer coast” while leaving the mainland of Asia to its own affairs. Today China is coming out from its shores and reaching for the outer coast and its inner seas. What happens depends on two things: the capability, intent and statecraft of the United States and China. China’s policies may be influenced by diplomacy, but ultimately they are the province of the Chinese government. It is beyond anyone’s control. What the United States does — and can do — is fundamentally going to be determined by the future it chooses in the next five years.
It is chooses one. The current administration, whose popularity has now fallen below 40%, represents a government where policy — except for narrow, mean, patronage politics — has fallen into disuse. The phone has been ringing at 3 am every day in the White House, and nobody seems to pick it up. What many observers have just realized is that this not the channel the occupant really cares about.
That would suit some regional powers just fine. Kaplan points to a paper from the Australian National University by Hugh White that ardently wishes for two things: a growing China and a diplomatically passive China. And the answer to both is reticent America, willing to defend its former clients, but only just and never too much.
But as White writes, the problem is that both of these things cannot go on. Asia cannot continue to change economically without changing politically and strategically; a Chinese economic behemoth naturally will not be content with American military primacy in Asia. …
That leaves the Concert of Europe model, in which China, India, Japan, the United States, and perhaps one or two others would sit down at the table of Asian power as equals. But would the United States accept such a modest role, since it has associated Asian prosperity and stability with its own primacy? White suggests that in the face of rising Chinese power, American dominance might henceforth mean instability for Asia.
But whatever America’s passivity, at some point in the American retreat, China will have to confront that other major Asian power, Japan. Some would prefer a quiet surrender to the inevitable — but Japan — that could be a problem. Kaplan makes the case for a retreat. “In other words, the United States, not China, might be the problem in the future. … Instead, America’s aim in Asia should be balance, not dominance. It is precisely because hard power is still the key to international relations that we must make room for a rising China. The United States need not increase its naval power in the Western Pacific, but it cannot afford to substantially decrease it.”
One objection to Kaplan’s analysis is it presumes a linearity that is rarely found in history. China’s “rise” may be as transient as it has been sudden. The Middle Kingdom has inherent geopolitical liabilities. Its historical reluctance to project power across the ocean, a possible decline in demographic vitality and a limited energy base descriptors could, with the exception of the reluctance to engage in Naval Conflict, characterize Japan as well. Japan was the coming power in the Pacific not so long ago and where is it now?
The world is one in which the unexpected happens. The job of policymakers has in the past been to pay attention. But today they are reading their talking points. And that makes for danger. A growing paralysis in Washington is unlikely to culminate in the substitution of diplomacy for Empire. If events in the Middle East are any yardstic, the successor to American hegemony is the renewal of dormant historic conflicts, not peace. What is far more likely in the event of a permanent Obamacy, to the disappointment of Kaplan, is the emergence of a vacuum which will be filled less by a Concert of Europe than by a new Manchurian Incident. Chaos, not order, is the character of the void.
In a moment which reflected the inattention of Washington, Senator James Webb attempted to describe the importance of the Pacific theater to David Gregory in the June 26 Meet the Press. Gregory seemed almost annoyed by Webb’s comments because it in distracted from what he was really interested in: political gossip. He changed the subject and never returned to it.
MR. GREGORY: What are those broader considerations for the president?
SEN. WEBB: Well, first of all, I have met very few generals in my life who didn’t want more troops. And the president is the commander in chief, as the Republicans are so often quick to point out when he makes decisions that other people get upset with. When I look at this, first of all, I don’t want to second guess decisions that were made with a great deal of, of consultation with military leaders, with, with political leaders, and with diplomats. My concern on this is that we, we do have to get back to rebuilding our country, and this model, per se, is not the model of the future. Secretary Gates said that a couple of months ago.
MR. GREGORY: Big land army.
SEN. WEBB: The Afghan–yes. It’s not the model of the future. And we, right now, are in a situation where we have to look at this in terms of our broader national security interests in addition to the nation-building questions. We still have 45,000 troops in Iraq. They’re supposed to be out by the end of the year. I’m not holding my breath. We have this new situation in Libya where the president made a unilateral decision, which I, among others, have serious problems with. And most importantly, because this is something that does not get discussed, as we have focused for the last 10 years on this part of the world, our situation in East Asia with respect to China and China’s expansionist military activities has deteriorated. We are at a point in the South China Sea right now where we are approaching a Munich moment with China, and it’s not being discussed.
MR. GREGORY: We’ll get back to that, but I want to also keep the framing here about what’s going on inside the Democratic Party. You’re both Democrats, of course. We spoke on our weekly conversation that we call Press Pass, which is available on our blog and our Web site, with Barbara Lee, the California Democrat in the House. And I asked her about whether there was that political will among liberals to keep funding the war in Afghanistan. This is how she responded. (plays clip)
The subject of China never returned again on that session of Meet the Press. Nor does it feature in the talking points being circulated in the capital. So who cares about the South-China-whatits? But that does not mean it will not be met again in near-term history. The Obama administration, as nearly to rudderlessness and political ruin as anything in recent memory has been, is supremely attentive to patronage and image and utterly oblivious to substance. It sails where the winds take it, assuming it noticed that was happening.
John Seeley, an historian at Cambridge, once wrote that the British Empire was acquired in ‘a fit of absentmindedness’. Had Seeley written today he might have written that three quarters of a century of peace was in danger of being frittered away by in an amnesiac episode occasioned by an obsession with trivia. Fitting in some place between a review of Twilight and a retrospective of Oprah. But in a sense that is the only way empires are even won or lost: unconsciously. They are acquired as an organic part of burgeoning vitality. They are remitted as an involuntary consequence of feebleness and a final concern for appearance over reality.