The Magazine

Sea of Troubles

The Pacific as naval battleground.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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In 2005, Thomas L. Friedman published a book that had far too much influence on how Americans think about world affairs. The World Is Flat was a paean to the wonders of economic interdependence and “globalization”—the belief that interdependence and cooperation had replaced competition in international affairs and that the result would be more or less spontaneous peace and prosperity. 

Sea of Troubles

Friedman echoed the naïve optimism that characterized so much of the chattering classes in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seemingly easy American victory in the first Gulf war. Political scientists and economists alike agreed that globalization was the most important characteristic of our epoch, against which other forces didn’t stand a chance. “Global interdependence” advanced the idea that geopolitics was dead, and that the pursuit of power in its geographic setting had been supplanted by economic cooperation. For many, the process of globalization was autonomous and self-regulating: Advocates of globalization mocked international relations realists, especially those who suggested that geopolitics possessed any explanatory power in an economically interdependent world.

These illusions about globalization should already have tumbled down along with the twin towers on September 11, 2001. Now, recent events in the Greater Middle East and Eurasia, most notably in Ukraine, have confirmed the naïveté of the assumptions underpinning globalization: The fact is, geopolitical factors remain an important element of international relations and statecraft.  

Robert Kaplan is the anti-Friedman. For him, the world is definitely not flat. By virtue of some 15 books, including Balkan Ghosts (1993), The Coming Anarchy (2000), and The Revenge of Geography (2012), not to mention countless articles, Kaplan has established himself as one of our most consequential geopolitical thinkers. It is not the originality of his ideas that makes him an important observer of world affairs, but his ability to synthesize concepts and insights into a coherent understanding of geopolitical phenomena. In Asia’s Cauldron, Kaplan turns his geopolitical gaze to the South China Sea, which 

connects the maritime world of the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent to that of Northeast Asia. It is as central to Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe. If one assumes that the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia are the two areas of the non-Western world that the United States should never let another great power dominate, consider the energy-rich South China Sea, which lies between them, the third.

The problem, of course, is the proximity of a China whose growing military power concerns not only the United States but the other states that border (and have claims within) the South China Sea. 

Kaplan is a realist, one who believes that states operate in their own interests and seek to maximize power relative to other actors in the international system. Accordingly, he contends that China’s actions are merely reflective of the South China Sea’s role as a strategic hinterland for China. Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, seeking to dominate a maritime region crowded with smaller and much weaker powers: Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Singapore.  

As a realist, Kaplan makes some observations that cut against the grain of recent American and Western foreign policy, which demonstrates a consensus toward liberal internationalism and a predisposition to see international institutions as the solution to disputes. Kaplan argues, for instance, that any conflict in the South China Sea would reflect what he calls the “humanist dilemma,” lacking the moral element that characterized the conflicts of the 20th and early 21st centuries: the moral struggle against fascism in World War II; against communism during the Cold War; against genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Levant; and against terrorism and in support of democracy after 9/11. 

The South China Sea, says Kaplan, “shows us a 21st-century world void of moral struggles, with all their attendant fascination for humanists and intellectuals.” Conflict in the South China Sea would be about power, trade, and business. He describes the region as a Hobbesian “state of nature” out of which conflict may well arise and in which “there is no such thing as an unjust war.”