China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
GIDEON ROSE: Hi, everybody. It's Gideon Rose, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, here. We are delighted to have with us Robert Kaplan, the author of a major new piece in our May/June issue, "The Geography of Chinese Power." Bob is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a correspondent for The Atlantic and has a new book out, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, which will appear in the fall.
Let's get right to it. You all know who our author is; that's why you're here. So for those who haven't read the article -- those few people living under a rock somewhere -- can you just summarize briefly what the gist of the piece is? And then we can discuss further some of the issues it raises.
ROBERT KAPLAN: Sure, Gideon. We've been reading a lot about China, about China holding so much of our debt, about -- you know -- all these problems the U.S. has in their bilateral relations with China over global warming, over China's support of authoritarian regimes in Burma, in Sudan, and all that. But one thing that's the most obvious thing that nobody writes about is Chinese geography; in other words, what does the map say about China?
That's what this piece is all about. And it's got several themes. Whereas Russia is north of the 50th degree of parallel and is in the frigid Arctic zone for the most part, China is a temperate-zone power that harnesses a lot of the mineral and energy wealth into Central Asia as well as having a long 9,000-mile frontage in the temperate and subtropical zones on the Indian Ocean.
And this gives China tremendous advantages. China is also -- as a rising power, it is through demographics, aggressive corporate practices, signing border agreements and trade practices, it's expanding its zone of influence into contiguous zones: into the Russian Far East, into Mongolia, into Central Asia, into Southeast Asia. And it is building ports or helping to build ports along the Indian Ocean. It's taking steps with its navy that will secure for China at least partial control of the South China Sea, of the East China Sea.
The map of China is growing, and this presents a geopolitical challenge, because just as the U.S. is the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, China is becoming -- on its way to becoming -- a sort of hegemon over, we'll say, much of the Eastern Hemisphere.
ROSE: Okay. Let's talk about this for a second. How inevitable is this, and does it depend on things like the rates of growth in the Chinese economy or political stability in China, or the political system that the Chinese themselves have?
KAPLAN: Well, as I say early on, history is not linear. We cannot take for granted that China is going to have the kind of economic growth in the future that it has had over the past 30 years. There'll be a lot of bumps and bruises along the line. And this will definitely affect China's ability to project power through its navy and through its corporations and the deals it signs on land.
But a few things should be mentioned. First is that China is projecting its power -- its hard power, rather -- largely through its navy. And there was a good New York Times story to that regard by Edward Wong just about a week ago. The fact that China can do this, as I say in the article, represents a luxury for China, because continental land powers go to sea not as a matter of course but as a luxury. And the luxury in China's case is that its land borders are more secure than they have been in a very long time. And that, in and of itself, says much about how China is a rising power, because as we know from much of Chinese history, a lot of these land borders were insecure -- you know, 100 years ago, China barely had control over Manchuria, over many other regions.
ROSE: Okay. Let's talk for a little bit about the means by which all this is going to happen. I mean, a greater East Asian co-prosperity sphere is a very bad thing if acquired in some respects, and may not -- may be less so -- if it's more benignly originating. Are you arguing that this is going to be basically a source of conflict on China's part?
KAPLAN: It may not be. I say early on in the piece that China is not an existential threat. China is not a -- China's military threat to the United States, for instance, is indirect only, through its trying to limit America's access to the East and South China Sea and the Strait of Taiwan.
I think that China's geographic growth of sorts is more an expression of a situation going back to normal than it is of some power that means to do harm. I think that -- as I say in the piece -- Chinese leaders are not a proselytizing power. They're not a missionary power like the United States; they're not trying to promote any particular system of government. They're in search of mineral wealth and oil and energy in order to raise the standard of living of one-fifth of humanity. And this makes them, as I call it, an über-realist power. That is going to be a challenge for us to deal with but is in no sense negative or evil.
ROSE: Okay. Realists have often talked about the incidents of conflict that occur, not just from crusading powers or ideological systems but simply from the normal logic of competing interests. And so even if China is not aggressive or crusading, if it tries to expand its interests and sphere of interests naturally -- along the lines you suggest -- it'll start to bump up against what the United States considers its sphere of interests in the Pacific and in the region.
KAPLAN: Absolutely. And that is in fact how I end the piece, that we're more or less destined to have a tense relationship with China because of this very fact. Remember, at the end of World War II, China was devastated, Japan was devastated, Korea was devastated, the Philippines were devastated. The U.S. Navy owned the Western Pacific as though it were an imperial lake, our own private lake. Those days are ending. And it's . . . and the growth of the Chinese navy presages that, and this is going to bump up against American interests.
You know, overhanging the whole piece is the fact that our navy is plateauing, or some would even argue that it is declining in relative strength, in terms of the number of warships we put to sea.
So we're going to see more of . . . we're going to have more of a multipolar power system and less of a unipolar one, and that is going to be inherently more unstable.
ROSE: So the Cold War is dead, long live the Cold War?
KAPLAN: In a sense that the Cold War system in the Western Pacific and East Asia was very stable. For the most -- you know, with the exception of the war in Vietnam in the '60s and early '70s and the three-year-long Korean conflict, from '50 to '53, the Cold War was pretty stable. We're entering a period, and I say this in the piece, where it's not just China's navy that is rising. We're also seeing the modernization and strengthening of the South Korean navy, of the Japanese navy, of other navies in the region. These are real symbols of hard balancing, so to speak, which is going to make more… a less stable situation than we've had in recent decades.
ROSE: Are you saying that there's actually a significant increased prospect for old-school conventional war in this region?
KAPLAN: I would say there's a significant increased prospect for real hard balance-of-power nationalism. Because it's not just . . . Europe is declining as a sphere of military power as Asia is increasing. I haven't brought into this discussion India, which will also balance against China. India's building a great navy, going from the fifth-largest navy in the world to perhaps the third.
So this is an area of the world where nationalism still lives, where militaries are not something to be embarrassed or ashamed about the way they are in parts of Europe.
ROSE: So this is basically a thesis of -- similar to Aaron Friedberg's one in "Ripe for Rivalry," in which Europe may be peaceful and post-historical and so forth, but Asia is going to go back to classic Westphalian multipolarity and the basic security problems that --
And in addition to Aaron Friedberg, another book along those lines that came out in 1999 but which is very prescient is Paul Bracken of Yale's Fire in the East.
ROSE: Let's talk a little bit about the U.S. response, and then we'll turn it over to our audience so they can jump in and engage you. What do you think -- how do you think the United States has responded to the issues you're describing? And what have they done right, and what have they done wrong?
KAPLAN: Well, first of all, let me say a lot of people have criticized the special envoy system in the State Department where Richard Holbrooke was appointed to manage Afghan -- AfPak relations, and George Mitchell Israel-Palestine relations. In terms of China, this is a good thing because it frees up the secretary of state to make more trips to East Asia, more trips to South Asia, and more trips to Africa, where there is . . . the U.S. is also in competition with China. There is more attention, you know, in terms of manpower hours being paid now to these issues than was during the Bush administration, because the secretary of state is not so overwhelmed with the greater Middle East.
ROSE: And so if in your ideal world, you're made national security adviser, secretary of defense, and secretary of state all together, what do we do differently and better?
KAPLAN: I think what we do is . . . we do several things. First of all, we recognize that the Western Pacific, East Asia, South Asia really is the center -- the strategic center of the world. And we engage these countries. One of the problems with the Bush administration was we didn't show up enough at conferences at a high enough level.
We do that, and we also leverage allies -- Japan, South Korea, India, other countries. At the same time, we reach out to China and try to draw them into a kind of concert of powers, patrolling the seas from the Horn of Africa all the way up to the Sea of Japan.
ROSE: Okay. Well, that's an excellent start for our discussion. And the whole point of these calls is to bring our audience into the discussion. So with that, let me turn it over to our queue, and let's get some questions going so you can engage them.
OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Michael Bruno with Aviation Week.
MICHAEL BRUNO: Hi, thanks for having this teleconference.
BRUNO: Curious as to whether . . . how do you think that the current fleet or the plans for the plans for the fleet under the 313 plan in the U.S. Navy -- how does that compare with what you see with China building up? And what is needed, from your perspective?
KAPLAN: All right, what is the 313 plan?
BRUNO: It's a -- the plan for building up the U.S. Navy fleet to 313 ships.
KAPLAN:Oh, 313 ships.
KAPLAN: All right, that 313 number is going to come, at least to my knowledge, to some extent from the introduction of the littoral combat ships --
BRUNO: Right, right.
KAPLAN: The Congressional Research Service also has figures that it's not going to reach 313, that we may even be going down below our current 283. That's because of cost overruns, delays in production.
There are a lot of rumors going around about problems with the USS Gerald Ford, and we may be a 10-carrier navy, rather than an 11-carrier navy for a significant period. I think that we will still, for the years ahead, have an overwhelming advantage one-on-one against China because our ships are better, and we'll still have enough.
But the distance is closing. And not only is the distance closing, the Chinese are smart. They're not buying across the board; they're developing niche capacities in submarines, in missiles, in space technology that will allow them to potentially embarrass us at sea, like they've done a few times in the past, or to lock us out of the Taiwan Strait.
You're probably familiar with the RAND study of 2009, which had a lot of caveats in it but basically said that by 2020 we might not be able to win a war in the Taiwan Strait. Not that we'll ever fight one, but the very perception that we couldn't win one could change the balance of power in Asia.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Elizabeth Pun, freelance.
ELIZABETH PUN: Hello. I wonder if you could answer a question about how the Chinese see this. Because your article and your framework is strategic analysis from a Western point of view. And I wondered what -- how do the Chinese themselves see this?
KAPLAN: Well, I don't know for a fact how the Chinese themselves see this. But I can give you a few insights here. If you look at the Indian Ocean, it's fascinating. The Chinese are building port projects in various points along the littoral.
But at the same time, they have no interest whatsoever, at least now, of making those into ports for the Chinese navy. And the reason is that they wouldn't be able to defend them against the Indian air force and navy. I think the Chinese are like us, they're moving ahead cautiously. They're looking around.
They're worried if they will have access to these ports even if they build them. Will they have the same problem as the Americans, where in a different political crisis they may not be able to use them? Also, if you look at Chinese history, all these areas that I write about, where China is expanding in one way or another, are areas that used to be under Chinese control but that they have lost over the centuries. The Russian Far East is a prime example, where due to the weakness of the Qing dynasty in the nineteenth century, Russia got formal control over the area north of the Jamawar River and east of the Ussuri River.
You know, I think the Chinese see -- and again, I'm just speculating -- that North Korea is a big problem for them. Yes, they support Kim Jong Il, but they can't be happy with all of his machinations because the Chinese want stability in this area. The Chinese look at North Korea, and they see a trap in its armpit, the Bohai Sea, where a lot of Chinese maritime activity goes along.
The Chinese have a geographical interest in the Korean Peninsula that outlives the Kim Jong Il regime. So, as I speculate in the piece, they may be much more happy with more of a light, low-calorie Gorbachev version of communism in the north than the present regime that they have. But also, like the South Koreans, they're terrified of a collapse of the North Korean state because of the refugee flows it would bring. So they don't want to precipitate that.
The Chinese are making overtures in the Philippines, you know, offering all sorts of agreements. But I think this is . . . as I write, to me, China is expanding in the way that the U.S. did between the Civil War and the Spanish American War, where we didn't so much seek conquests or seek territory. It was just that our economy was expanding at such a dynamic pace that we developed interests and anxieties about far-flung places of the world that we hadn't previously. I think that's how the Chinese may be looking at this.
ROSE: Let me take a question here, Bob -- it's Gideon again. But that would put us in the role of Britain as the declining hegemon. Are we going to be as graceful in ceding power, if that scenario continues to play out, as Britain was to us?
KAPLAN: Well, you know, that brings us back again to Aaron Friedberg, who, in The Weary Titan, wrote that actually the British Royal Navy started to decline in the 1890s, but that didn't stop Britain from winning two world wars up through 1945. It was a very gradual and elegant decline of the British Royal Navy.
I think, to take the British example, a gradual and elegant decline of the United States in a more multipolar world would see us try to encourage Japan to re-militarize; we would be very happy and encourage, you know, the continuing buildup of the Indian armed forces, of the Australian armed forces, of the South Korean armed forces. At the same time, I'll have to keep repeating that we reach out to China.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tejinder Singh with AHN Media Corporation.
TEJINDER SINGH: Yes. Thank you for arranging this. You fleetingly mentioned India, and then you said our ships are better, we are better. Some analysts say that this should change. Otherwise, this will bring on our fall from the pedestal. And also you said about China going for their resources. As you see, China today has an iron grip on African resources, as they just want resources with no questions asked. How do you see that being addressed by the Americans?
KAPLAN: All right, let me just throw a question back at you. Can you explain again what was your implication about Indian warships that you want me to answer?
SINGH: There are three questions. One is, you fleetingly mentioned India. India is next door to China, with a huge, competitive population, a democracy, and so I thought that it could have played a much more -- it should have been addressed in a paragraph at least.
Then you said about it's nothing to do with India, that our ships, American ships are better, we are better. This attitude . . . pundits say this attitude should change. Otherwise, this will bring us down from the pedestal.
KAPLAN: Ah, okay, yes.
SINGH: The third one was China's iron grip on African resources. If you go there, they don't ask any questions, they just want the resources. Europeans are fighting on that with the Chinese, but the Americans are absent there.
KAPLAN: Yes. Actually, I wrote extensively about Indian-Chinese relations and competition in a previous story in Foreign Affairs in March/April 2009. And that's why, frankly, I didn't emphasize it in this piece, because I didn't want to overlap from the previous piece.
You're right. India is contiguous with China. Whereas China is authoritarian, India is a democracy. I think India is playing a great game with China over Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and -- to an extent -- Nepal. Both China and India are offering the governments in these countries various aid packages. I think, the recent generous . . . I think that the loans that India offered the prime minister of Bangladesh back last January were a result of what China was offering them.
China has been basically supplying the Sri Lankan armed forces from top to bottom, from assault rifles up to fighter jets, and was an indirect influence in helping the Sri Lankan government win the civil war against the Tamil Tigers. This makes India very nervous obviously. India and China have, I think, the world's largest bilateral trading relationship. Their economies are complementary rather than competitive. This will be a stabilizing force in Indian-Chinese relations.
But I think that, to sum up on your first question, as China moves south -- in other words, expanding its influence along the Indian Ocean littoral -- India seeks to move east and west in terms of influence, out to the borders of former British India, and this is going to mean a very tense relationship between India and China in the future.
In terms of the warships, you know, it's a fact that American technology, at least at this point in history, is superior to the Chinese and the Russian technology. China buys a significant amount of warships from Russia. This could change. Technology is stolen, it is borrowed. It is just hard to keep -- very hard to keep -- a technological edge. And you're right, the Americans should not be boastful in this regard.
And your third question again?
SINGH: The third question was about the African resources, natural resources. I've just come from Europe, and in Europe they are going crazy about the way Chinese have an iron grip, you know. Belgium used to have Congo --
KAPLAN: Yes. Look, if you look at the country of Niger in Africa, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, there was a coup d'état recently. The Chinese had excellent relations with the government that was overthrown. It has excellent relations with the new government. It played both sides. It is getting deeply embedded into the politics of these nations through its need for resources.
Niger has uranium and is a potential big oil exporter as well. Niger is a microcosm of what is going on, you know, with the Chinese in Africa, which may herald a new form of colonialism that will be different from the previous colonialism. But it's not necessarily a great thing that China is investing such large amounts in Africa.
SINGH: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Paul Eckert with Reuters.
PAUL ECKERT: Hi. Thank you. Brilliant article, and thank you for making yourself available. I had two questions, one more general. If China's political system sort of shifts to a more benign and transparent entity, does that lessen the concerns of this naval buildup and outreach?
And two, with Japan itself in disarray -- and, relatedly, the Japanese-U.S. relationship and alliance in disarray -- is that something that China is likely to seize on and take advantage of, and how?
KAPLAN: All right, all right, your first question again was about?
ECKERT: A lot of concerns about China and the China threat, et cetera, has to do with its political system and the fact they're not democratic and not --
KAPLAN: Yes. Thank you very much for the praise. In terms of China's political system, I take a kind of counterintuitive look at this. Because we Americans are democratic, we tend to think the rest of the world will all be better if they're democratic. And if China's democratic, or less authoritarian, that will mean that we'll have better relations with China.
Well, that's true on a number of fronts, but it's not necessarily true across the board because a less authoritarian China could be a much more economically and socially dynamic China, while still being as nationalist as an authoritarian China was. So it may seem counterintuitive, but a freer China could still be a China where the United States will be in intense competition in the twenty-first century.
A freer China may lead to more sustained economic growth rates in the years and decades ahead, which would allow China to expand its power into the borderlands of which I write. So I'm not convinced that the struggle for democracy in China automatically means that China will be the friend of America rather than its enemy.
On the U.S.-Japan relationship, Japanese politics are in disarray. It's got a new government, you know, which hasn't governed before. The way I see it is Japan has finally had its post–World War II political upheaval. For decades, Japan was essentially, was functionally, a one-party state and now it is no longer. And the new party has a lot of gripes. It has no experience in governing, so there's real confusion in Japanese politics.
China has actually been trying to exploit the U.S.-Japanese relationship for years now. It hasn't gotten much attention. It's been trying to reach out to Japan very quietly, saying, "You don't need the Americans so much. We will assure you of protection -- you know, of a good healthy relationship."
Remember, Japanese politics will probably stabilize; we're already going to move 7,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam. You know, we're entering a world, a time in history when we're just not going to be able to have such a large military presence in Japan as we've had for the last few decades. And in that sense, as I said before, we need to encourage Japanese remilitarization, its psychological remilitarization as a hedge with China.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Michael Lelyveld with Radio Free Asia.
MICHAEL LELYVELD: Yes, hi.
LELYVELD: I want to ask a couple of questions about a statement made by Admiral Willard last month before the Armed Services Committee. This has to do with . . . he says "China is also developing and testing a conventional anti-ship ballistic missile based on the DF-21/CSS-5 MRBM, designed specifically to target aircraft carriers." You touch on some of this in your article without, I don't think, specifically mentioning this missile.
But my questions are, first, is it known for a certainty that this missile was being tested and that this is its specific purpose? And, if we know it for a certainty, how do we know it?
And if such a weapon is being designed with that specific purpose, how do you evaluate the risk . . . the potential for major conflict any time a U.S. aircraft sails into Chinese waters?
KAPLAN: Yeah, alright. First of all, in terms of “is this a certainty, does the U.S. have countermeasures?” -- I suspect that the real answers to this lie in the classified realm, and I don't know them. I am aware of the Chinese developing this anti-ship ballistic missile with a particular aim at moving aircraft carriers. I wrote about this as early as 2005 in the Atlantic Monthly.
I think about it this way: the essence of power is to affect the behavior of your adversaries. And if the mere development of this anti-ship missile makes the U.S. Navy and its carrier strike groups more hesitant to enter the East and South China Seas whenever and wherever it wants, that will show a growth of Chinese power. In other words, as I say in the piece, the Chinese don't have to actually go to war against anybody. Simply by doing this, by developing underground submarine pens for nuclear submarines off Hainan Island in the South China Sea and other actions like that, the Chinese are affecting the behavior of their potential adversaries and therefore growing in power. Simply by developing all these means, China can affect the balance of power without actually doing anything.
Everybody knows about the Taiwan Strait, but the key area to watch is actually the South China Sea, which may be as important in the twenty-first century as the Persian Gulf has been in the twentieth century. The South China Sea is an international waterway, it is the gateway to the Indian Ocean, it's got energy reserves, it's got problems of piracy, the potential Islamic terrorism. But even though it's an international waterway, the Chinese see it in Monroe Doctrine terms -- it's something that is part of their patrimony. They see the South China Sea the way the U.S. saw the Caribbean when it was expanding its power under President Theodore Roosevelt.
LELYVELD: You just addressed the last part of my question, though also you say in your article China's not going to attack a U.S. carrier any time soon, et cetera. I take that point. But my question was also, if such weapons are being developed for that specific purpose, and that's our interpretation, how do you evaluate the risk that there will be a major conflict as a consequence any time a carrier sails into that area?
KAPLAN: Well, there's always the risk of a miscalculation or an accident at sea. We have had already incidents with the Chinese at sea: with the surfacing in the middle of the Kitty Hawk carrier strike group some years ago, the action taken against the USS Impeccable, more recently -- you know, the risks of accidents and miscalculations go up. And every time a U.S. carrier strike group sails into this area where these anti-ship missiles are active -- that, in and of itself, is going to raise tensions. In other words, I'm not predicting a conflict, but what I am predicting in this article is more tensions, and perhaps more crises.
LELYVELD: Okay, thanks very much.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Gina Chung with Voice of America.
GINA CHUNG: Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call.
My question is about Taiwan. Your article says that if the United States abandoned Taiwan to Beijing, it would raise a doubt in its allies in Asia about U.S. commitment to Asian security. And, therefore, you know, Taiwan officials, in response to your article, are calling for more advanced weapons sales -- for instance, the F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan in order to help it defend itself. Do you think it will work, to sell more advanced weaponry to Taiwan? And would it, you know, stir an arms race in the Taiwan Strait and make China more suspicious about U.S. intentions to contain China?
KAPLAN: No. I was in Taiwan last October and the issue of selling F-16s to Taiwan has been on the table for months, for years. The Taiwanese regularly raise the issue; we have deferred on the issue. I think there already has been an announcement of a major new weapons sale to Taiwan by the Obama administration; I don't think there will be another one for quite some time.
You know, the Taiwanese will use -- as they should -- any peg that they can to raise the issue of more arms sales. And my article is as legitimate a means as any to do so. But I think the Obama administration has a pretty calculated and calm mindset on this. They'll sell sufficient weaponry to Taiwan to raise the price of a Chinese invasion to a point where the Chinese would not consider it. But they're not going to sell so many weapons to Taiwan that it really upsets in a fundamental way U.S.-China relations.
CHUNG: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Xing Wei with Global Times.
XING WEI: Hi, thank you for taking the call.
The question is it looks like all projections are pointing that the Chinese navy will grow in the near future. Is there a way they can do it so that it's not perceived as hostile to major powers?
KAPLAN: The fact that -- it doesn't look like it, because the Chinese, as I said earlier, are not buying across the board. They're putting a particular emphasis on submarines, both the latest diesel, electric, and nuclear. Submarines are the most offensive of all warships. Unlike aircraft carriers, they don't have peaceful purposes. An aircraft carrier is a perfect platform for massive humanitarian emergencies near littorals, as we saw in the 2004–2005 Indonesian tsunami emergency.
The fact that China is developing one or two aircraft carriers does not concern me. It's the submarines that concern me more, and I think which concern other powers in the region as well.
China's naval acquisition program is pretty aggressive, and it's going to make contiguous powers in Asia -- from India all the way up to South Korea and Japan -- more nervous than they have been.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Raghida Dergham with Al-Hayat.
RAGHIDA DERGHAM: Yes. I wonder if you can share some thoughts you may have on information that I understand is taking place, that is to say, about cooperation between the United States and China, naval cooperation, in terms of fighting piracy. Particularly, of course, we're talking Somalia and other places. And I'm wondering if you can reflect on the impact of such cooperation, if, in fact, it's taking place.
KAPLAN: Yes, that's a great question.
The good thing about piracy is that it enables others -- people who are in other spheres that tend to be adversaries, whether it's Indians and Pakistanis, whether it's U.S. and Chinese -- to cooperate. Piracy is the ripple effect of anarchy on land. And Somalia has the longest coastline of any country in mainland Africa, and it is in a chaotic state. And thus we have substantial piracy off its waters. They've been disrupting Chinese merchant vessels, so China has dispatched -- I believe it's two destroyers and a supply ship to the region.
And this does several things for China. It allows China to show its more benevolent side, by cooperating with the United States and other powers in fighting this scourge, and it also gives China long-distance experience at sea. And as anyone who's ever spent time on a warship -- I spent two months embedded on nuclear submarines and on guided missile destroyers -- can tell you, operating at long distances from home port is incredibly complex. And there's no substitute for hands-on experience, which the Chinese are getting now.
And the third thing is it allows China to show some sort of presence in the Indian Ocean, where Chinese ships had plied the seas before Western imperialism, before even the Portuguese in the early fifteenth century.
So it serves three purposes for the Chinese.
DERGHAM: Can I just bring it to another point, though? Am I still on?
DERGHAM: Yeah. I was just wondering if you can reflect on how that will impact the ongoing sort of maneuvering vis-à-vis the Iran situation, particularly because we have cooperation -- Chinese-American naval cooperation -- in that region, and Iran is probably threatening some action in the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. I'm wondering if you can reflect on that sort of cooperation.
KAPLAN: Yeah. I don't think the cooperation extends to there. It's only two destroyers, and it's not near the Straits of Hormuz. It's near the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, where the Chinese are.
Also, China, again, is hungry for energy. They're hungry for minerals, et cetera. China has a strategic interest in good bilateral relations with Iran, because Iran will supply China and China's population in the future, as it rises to more middle-class status, with both oil and liquefied natural gas. And these are considerations for China that are over and above its considerations about problems the U.S. or Israel may be having with Iran’s nuclear program.
China may, in the last analysis, help the United States at the UN vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear program. But it would only happen if the sanctions regime is severely whittled down.
DERGHAM: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Robert Katz with Small Wars Journal.
ROBERT KATZ: Yes, thank you.
Robert Kaplan, excellent piece. My question is: Should the Chinese leadership conclude that they have no possibility of winning a naval arms race and therefore look to other means, such as diplomacy or other arrangements, to defend their commercial interests? And let me explain why.
KATZ: First, the United States has the capacity to transfer more naval power from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Secondly, you've already mentioned the future expansion of Indian naval power. And third, United States military diplomacy through the Malabar exercises and so forth is already working on increasing cooperation and coordination between the U.S. fleet, India, Singapore, Australia, Japan, and others in the region.
And so shouldn't the Chinese leadership look at this combined naval power and see that they have no chance of prevailing or keeping up in a naval arms race?
KAPLAN: All right, thanks for the praise on the article.
I think the Chinese look at it somewhat differently. I don't think China is in the game to dominate the seas or to win an arms race. I think they think very long term. I think they're uncomfortable with the fact that they rely on the United States to protect the sea lines of communication for their merchant fleet. They're content to free-ride off U.S. naval protection for the moment, but they don't want to do it for the long run.
And if you had the same sort of historical experience that the Chinese have had, with great powers encroaching on their territories terribly, especially in the late nineteenth century, you would want to someday be able to protect your own merchant fleet with a blue-water force.
I think what the Chinese want is . . . they're building up particularly their naval capacity to have a correlation of forces where they want without the need to ever go to war. And for China, again, this is a return to normalcy. It's not belligerency, because China is already such a great economic power. Throughout history, countries that have built up a sustained great economy over decades have also built up their militaries.
So I think the Chinese look at it in this way. They're not trying to win an arms race against anyone. They just want a military that's commensurate to their economy in order to protect their economic interests.
OPERATOR: Thank you for your question. Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with the Mitchell Report.
GARRETT MITCHELL: Thanks very much.
And Robert, thanks, as always, for an interesting perspective on this question.
I want to ask you about the comments that you have made throughout this conversation that deal with the inevitability of rising tensions and, in some senses, a return to a kind of balance-of-power mentality.
My question is: When you speak about those tensions and balance of power, is it your framework that it's, in simplest terms, China versus the West, where tensions will occur? Or is the framework that you're talking about more in Asia itself?
Bill Emmott from The Economist makes the point in his book called Rivals that if you . . . his view of the future is that the tensions we ought to be most aware of are those that are inherent in the growth of economic and military power and interests in India, China, and, to a lesser extent, Japan.
And that's really the landscape that he was looking at. And I'm wondering whether yours is -- you are in agreement with that or whether you see it in a sort larger geopolitical framework?
KAPLAN: I think it is both.
I'm not trying to avoid the question, but I really think it's both. I think we're going to see more jockeying, competition and tension within Asia, as Bill Emmott suggests, and we're also going to see more on a bilateral framework between the United States and China because the United States has been for over 100 years an Asian power and it will continue to be so.
And as the preeminent Asian power in terms of the size of its armed forces, it's going to have . . . there's going to be a particular edge to tensions between the United States and China. But that should not obscure the fact that Japan, South Korea, China, India are all Asian countries with either growing or modernizing militaries that are increasingly expeditionary in nature that are going to bump up against each other in ways that they haven't over the past.
Because, remember, the first decades of the Cold War saw the emphasis on land forces in many of these places. The land forces were not there to fight other land forces; they were there to consolidate the national project in the first place. But what's developed in the latter phases of the Cold War and after the Cold War, is real authentic civil-military postindustrial complexes in all these nations with missiles, with war ships, and other things.
And this is going to create a note of tension that wasn't there in the first half of the Cold War.
MITCHELL: Got you. Thanks.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Geoffrey Styles with Energy Outlook.
GEOFFREY STYLES: Yes, thank you.
I've just got a question. A number of times you alluded to the technological aspects of the naval competition. Could you talk a little bit about the soft side of China's naval buildup, particularly relative to the challenge of a country without a naval tradition developing an effective navy, and how that stacks up against the 235-year naval tradition of the United States -- which was included in a number of wars and all of that -- and whether that U.S. organizational advantage might actually be more durable than any technological advantage, and how that ultimately --
KAPLAN: That's an amazing question because, remember, in the Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones fought the British, not off the shores of the United States but off the shores of England and Continental Europe.
We have a coast guard, let alone a navy, that operates from Greenland all the way to the South Pacific. The United States has an incredible expeditionary naval tradition that goes back to the very founding of the republic. I think during the John Adams administration, there were U.S. ships in the Indonesian archipelago, whereas China was a land power for most of its history and with very tenuous border arrangements so that it concentrated on its troublesome borders.
I think it was -- you can check this -- I think it was only the Manchu's, the Qing Dynasty, that finally conquered Taiwan in the mid-seventeenth century, relatively late in China's history. China didn't go to sea the way the Greeks went to sea, the way the British went to sea, the way the Venetians went to sea. This has come late in China's history.
You know, the explorations of Zhonghua in the early sixteenth century were more of an aberration -- and that's why they're so famous.
And one thing you know from reporting on Navy's is that seamanship and tradition matter a lot. And this will be a tremendous challenge for China, to build up -- not just throw money at the problem -- but to actually build up a real naval tradition.
ROSE: With that, we're actually getting close to the witching hour. I think we have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: Okay, actually at this time, there are no more – well, we do have one more question: Jim Cochran with Reuters.
JIM COCHRAN: Hello. Hi, this is Jim Cochran with Reuters.
I'm an ex-naval officer, did a lot of intelligence work and flew the spy plane missions that were shot down in Hainan. Do you still see the U.S. Navy being combative -- have a combative stance -- with China, or do you see the U.S. Navy thinking to work closely with China in the future, to kind of share the responsibility between the Persian Gulf and the Chinese shores?
KAPLAN: I think it would prefer to have a cooperative attitude towards the Chinese Navy. When Admiral Fallon was the PACOM combatant commander, he constantly reached out to China. Our combatant commanders before or since have done similarly.
The problem is that when you're actually on U.S. warships all they do is simulated war games much of the time with Country X, which they never say is China in reality.
COCHRAN: That's true.
KAPLAN: So the fact is, you know, in terms of future naval engagements, China is the most obvious example.
That doesn't mean it will happen, it just means it's the most obvious, likely case study. So there's going to be real tension in the U.S. Navy because you're going to have admirals who are PACOM commanders and fleet commanders who are going to -- in their diplomatic role -- do everything they can to reach out to China. And then you're going to have all kinds of war gaming going on at lower levels where China's going to be the obvious enemy.
COCHRAN: Yeah, I've found that to be true. I participated in those myself.
ROSE: Well, with that, let me thank you all for attending and your questions and thank Bob again, not only for a great piece but for a great follow-up discussion.To the extent that you're right -- bad for the world, good for the magazine, as I always say. We'll have lots of future opportunities to discuss this subject and its various ramifications.
Thank you all. Go to our website for more discussions, and we look forward to having you in future conversations.
KAPLAN: Thanks, Gideon. Thanks, everyone.
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