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.” 

Accordingly, he sees China’s approach to the South China Sea as analogous to the Monroe Doctrine. Just as the Caribbean is close to the United States and far from the great European powers of the 18th and 19th centuries, so the South China Sea is close to China and far from the United States. The difference is that, unlike the newly independent Caribbean and Latin American states that saw the United States as a bulwark against the reimposition of European colonialism, China’s neighbors look to the United States as a counterbalance against Beijing’s military growth. 

But Kaplan also invokes a realist argument on behalf of the continuing role of the United States in East Asia. The United States, he contends, provides the security for the global commons upon which globalization depends—and which, for the most part, keeps the peace, aside from the small wars that erupt from time to time. Although Kaplan does not use the term, hegemonic stability is what he is describing, a theory that maintains that free and open international trade—globalization—requires more than simply a global invisible hand. Instead, globalized trade requires a hegemonic power to be willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security. 

During the 19th century, Great Britain functioned as the hegemon; since World War II, the United States has fulfilled this role. Although the role of hegemon creates burdens, those burdens have been in the interest of the United States, since we disproportionately benefit from the resulting order. According to the theory of hegemonic stability, a decline in relative American power could create a more disorderly, less peaceful world; or, as Kaplan puts it, “substantially reduce .  .  . American military presence and the world—and the South China Sea in particular—looks like a very difference place.” 

Kaplan is here echoing Samuel Huntington, who wrote: 

A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.

Kaplan also makes a realist argument on behalf of strong autocratic leaders. In words sure to offend the sensibilities of those who see democracy as a panacea for state development, Kaplan defends the approach of such “good autocrats” as Malaysia’s Mahathir bin Mohamed, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, and even Taiwan’s long-vilified Chiang Kai-shek, who all developed “hybrid” regimes that helped create modern (and liberal) economies in their respective countries. 

Kaplan’s approach here reprises that of his earlier books: It is part treatise on geopolitics, part travel narrative. Indeed, he writes in the tradition of the great travel writers, most notably Gertrude Bell, who helped create the narrative that led to the creation of modern Iraq. 

Asia’s Cauldron is also a tour d’horizon of the South China Sea and its environs, describing how the character of the region arises from the intersection of Indian/Khmer and Sinic cultures. As he has often done when looking at other regions, Kaplan rejects the “area studies” categories that have shaped U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy in the postwar era. Rather than placing Southeast Asia in the East Asia and Pacific realm (as both the Pentagon and State Department do), we should, Kaplan argues, consider the region as “part of an organic continuum that is more properly labeled the Indo-Pacific, whose maritime heart is the South China Sea.” What makes this body of water so important—and dangerous—is that it is where the interests of China, the other states that border it, and the United States come into conflict. 

Kaplan does not argue that war is inevitable. But it is possible, for a variety of reasons. The military rise of China alarms its neighbors. Will they “bandwagon” with China, or seek counterbalancing alignment with the United States? How will China react if weaker states in the region choose the latter course? The states in the region have competing claims to three archipelagos in the South China Sea: the Pratas in the north (claimed by China but controlled by Taiwan), the Paracels in the northwest (claimed by both China and Vietnam), and the Spratlys in the southeast (claimed by multiple states but coveted by China). Will these competing claims spark conflict?

The South China Sea is a nervous region, crowded with warships and commercial vessels. It is a region where sea denial is cheaper and easier to achieve than sea control. Is such a region particularly vulnerable to miscalculation or miscommunication? Despite the region’s volatility, Kaplan contends that the United States “must safeguard a maritime system of international legal norms, buttressed by a favorable balance of power regimen.” So the question is: Does the United States have not only the force but the will to do so in the face of China’s growing power? 

Recent actions seem to suggest that the answer to both questions is no. The Obama administration, motivated by its commitment to liberal internationalism, appears to be pursuing a policy of intentional decline. President Obama has made it clear that he rejects the idea that the United States should provide the public good of security, which underpins the very liberal world order that liberal internationalists favor. As we are seeing in Ukraine, American weakness has geopolitical consequences. The combination of a turbulent region, rising Chinese military power, and American retreat threatens the future of freedom, democracy, open economies—and a liberal world order. 

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.