Why U.S. Needs a China Threat

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The Atlantic correspondent Robert Kaplan is one of America’s most influential geo-political thinkers, if not the most influential.  He’s the author of numerous books and policy articles informed by his extensive travels to the most chaotic parts of the world, and even more extensive reading of philosophers and poets of the human condition. He sits on the Defense Policy Board , which advises the Pentagon, and has worked as a consultant to the U.S. military. 

In other words, what he thinks has geo-political implications. So what does Kaplan think of China?

It’s clear from his reporting that the U.S. military considers China the number one threat in the Pacific Ocean, which Kaplan calls “America’s private lake.” In his book Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, Kaplan embeds on a destroyer, inside a nuclear submarine, and on a bomber, and what impresses him most is neither the technology nor the power of the military, but the passion and dedication of the soldiers, seaman, and pilots, and the experience and authority of the sergeants and corporals, who are the heart and soul of the U.S. military. While never made explicit, America’s fighting men and women are always learning, collaborating, and preparing themselves for their new enemy: China. 

And, for Kaplan, it’s not just the Pacific where the interests of the United States and China will collide.             

Kaplan’s most recent book is Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and Future of American Power, which argues that the Indian Ocean is now the nexus of globalization, and thus the center of gravity for geo-politics: Through the Strait of Hormuz, oil is delivered through the Strait of Malacca to fuel the world’s most dynamic economies. 

In Monsoon, Kaplan travels to major ports along the Indian Ocean littoral, some of which are being built by Chinese money and labor.  Kaplan envisions the Indian Ocean as a major source of conflict between India, which is expanding vertically, and China, which is expanding horizontally.  And where they meet is resource-rich Burma, where China is constructing roads to connect its southwest to Burma so that it can break into the Indian Ocean and secure a new route for energy supplies.  

As a writer, Kaplan can sometimes be edgy and passionate, but he’s above all careful and nuanced. It can sometimes be hard to catch what he’s saying, but here’s what I think is the subtext of Monsoon: China’s ambition is to become a two ocean blue-water navy, and thus a true global superpower. To accomplish that, China must “Finlandize” the southeast countries of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as take Taiwan back into its fold so that it can finally break into the Pacific. The United States ought to counter by shifting its focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region, and work with the  democracies of India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesian, and Australia to balance undemocratic China.

But Kaplan presents very little evidence as to why and how China threatens U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific. He does not visit China for his book, and so can’t see for himself how China may soon be too overwhelmed with environmental degradation, financial mismanagement, and social unrest to concern itself with the seas.  And he himself is a canny enough thinker of military matters to know that the Chinese military, even if it were to surpass the United States in number of ships and submarines, lacks the U.S. military’s democratic culture, spirit, and purpose which make American fighting men the best in the world, and the U.S. military machine the most flexible and resilient. 

So why does Kaplan consider China a threat?  Perhaps it’s because he spends so much time with U.S. military officials that he’s adopted their China paranoia? But I think there’s a deeper psychological reason why Kaplan sees China as a threat:  Because he, like so many other American intellectuals, understand deep down that the real threat to America is America itself, that the United States is amusing itself to death with Jersey Shore, Facebook, and the Superbowl.

And, as Kaplan argues passionately and eloquently in his essay “The Dangers of Peace,” which closes his book The Coming Anarchy, it’s this state of lethargic complacency that makes nations shallow and stupid, and which also creates the conditions for catastrophic war:

“After the Napoleonic Wars, many decades of peace in Europe led to rulers who lacked a tragic sense of the past, which caused them to blunder into World War I.

“The solution for such trends is simple:  struggle, of one sort or another, hopefully nonviolent. Struggle demands the real facts, as well as real standards of behavior.  While governments lie in specific instances during wartime, war ultimately demands credibility, whereas long periods of peace do not; with no threat at hand, lies and exaggerations carry smaller penalties. Struggle causes us to reflect, to fortify our faith, and to see beyond our narrow slots of existence.”

And China is the ideal villain for the United States to struggle against:  It’s so big and omnipresent, so aggressive and undemocratic that Hollywood couldn’t have cast a better villain.   

Just as nostalgic as the U.S. military for the Cold War, Kaplan is essentially predicting a new Cold War between China and America, and a new existentialist threat that will force the United States to come together and teach its students math.

That’s a romantic idea from a writer who has dedicated his career to questioning the practicality and purpose of romantic ideas.

Here are the closing words of Kaplan’s 1994 book The End of the Earth: A Journey into the Frontiers of Anarchy: “The more I saw of the world, the less I felt I could fit it into a pattern.  No one can foresee the precise direction of history, and no nation or people is safe from its wrath.” 

Comments
29
Adriano V
February 7, 2012 at 12:21

All very interesting comments & contradictory viewpoints that are good for democratic thinking/debate. However, one point I would like to make as an “Owl” not as a “Hawk” or a “Dove”, is that in any impending War (God Forbid!) between the US & China there will be NO winners. The losing side or the country that feels it is seriously threatened will use its Nukes. So let’s hope the Diplomats & the Governments of both the Superpowers would always be wise to decide what is really good for their respective nation & people. My fear is the Military Hawks could be too powerful & rough-shod the Civilian Leadership. Remember Tojo & his Army lackies in WW II?

Oro Invictus
February 6, 2012 at 01:05

@Henry003

It’s good to see you, once again, completely missed the point of what I said and are continuing to ramble on aimlessly. Honestly, both of your posts here are testaments to denial, xenophobia, and projecting.

Henry003
February 5, 2012 at 14:05

Oro Invectus I find your claim that PRC resembled Roman empire is ridiculous
PRC is nowhere close to Roman empire.The economy is surging, Now did you know the GDP/capita in 1950 is around $500 and now $6000

Tell me which country has improve the life of 1.3 billion people in such a short time .Now if CCP can survive GLF and Cultural revolution, all those incidents that you listed are child play. You use unrelated news to predict the downfall of PRC now that is what I called interpret ambiguous evidence to supporting their existing position

People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position

Lung Sha Shou
February 5, 2012 at 13:04

That is very very slippery of you Jiang Xueqin to indicate that you agree that even if “the Chinese military. . .were to surpass the United States in number of ships and submarines, lacks the U.S. military’s democratic culture, spirit, and purpose which make American fighting men the best in the world, and the U.S. military machine the most flexible and resilient”

So you are saying, that the US will defeat China easily and that your poor Asian countrymen, even with the best weapons in quality and quantity, could never be a threat? Doing the work of your masters very nicely. It’s a pity that your colleagues in the PLA and PLAN don’t think that way and that they are preparing to fight and win a war with the greatest expansion in peacetime ever seen.

It really is a lame strategy. People who read widely on China are amazed that the US as enemy figures in the thinking of even their department of agriculture to say nothing of the citizenry who have been carefully fed a diet of selective information encouraging hatred of other countries.

Your choice of strategy is fascinating, you elect to pretend to be awed by Kaplan – I’m surprised you did not mention his Atlantic Monthly article.

The rubbish you spout should be seen as such by anyone who remembers how the “hairy white apes” and “short-sighted yellow men with buck teeth” regarded each other and how both though the other side was hopeless and unable to fight because they did not have the esprit de corps and training you breathlessly mention. Well they sure did make a bloody mess of each other didn’t they?

Appealing to American narcissism and pride in arms is kind cute. What, you are saying that the Chinese military is a limp wristed pack of pansies who are going to let China’s national pride be deflated by the big tough smart Americans?

Gimme a break.

Your country threatened mine with nuclear arms only recently “be careful you are within strategic missile range”. What you are saying is objectionable, facile nonsense.

Oro Invictus
February 5, 2012 at 04:17

@ John Chan

Once again, I already explained the why of it (actually, the article did as well, but you seem to be missing this); Kaplan believes the US, to achieve its maximum potential, requires an enemy of some kind to spur competitiveness in the people. In this, the PRC is chosen as its government not only represents an ideological opposite to the US, but also one with sufficient power to represent some type of real “threat” in the eyes of the populace. There is no racism or apparent personal vendetta, it is purely cold calculation (albeit with a nationalistic bias). Virtually all countries do type of “creating a common enemy” and the US nor the PRC is any exception. If I may, I suggest some reading on the matters of Hegelian dialectics, in particular the nature of thesis-antithesis synthesis.

That said, do I agree with him? Certainly not. His pragmatism is unfortunately under the employ of patriotism, something which cannot, by its definition, serve the good of all people. In the long-term such a strategy serves no one, simply ensuring the rifts in human societies remain; unfortunately, in the short-term, such a strategy does have some “benefits” when it comes to the bolstering of nation-states’ powers, which is why it is so often utilized.

@Henry 003

The phrase you are looking for is “Mountain out of a mole hill”. In any case, you’ve completely missed the point of my post, which was to highlight how poor a choice it was for John Chan to compare other nations to the declining Roman Empire when such a comparison works much better with the PRC. Also, you will note I never said the PRC had slave labour, though the choice for migrant workers to either work for scraps or starve is hardly better. What’s more, urbanisation is an extraordinarily poor measure of social progress; particularly when you consider that many (if not most) of those people have been moving to the cities not because of better opportunities opening there, but because their livelihoods at their previous places of residence were ruined by the PRC’s various policies, forcing them to find work in the cities.

Also, judging by the increasing numbers of mass incidents in the PRC, your claim that “Things are getting better here” seems extremely hollow; the current mass protests in Tibet certainly do not appear to accept the PRC’s line in this. Likewise, considering that even the Corruption Perceptions Index (which is notorious for underestimating levels of corruption, particularly in countries which restrict information flow [i.e. the PRC]) places the PRC at 75th place (with 1st being the least corrupt), an extraordinarily poor rating; true, it isn’t the worst, but then I never said it was, did I?

Also, your understanding of confirmation bias, aside from the baseline association of events as supportive to preconceived conclusions, is quite lacking. In particular, your failure to understand the principles of non-malleable schema means you really should not try and call others under the influence of confirmation bias when you clearly don’t have a firm grip of the complete principle itself. In any case, it is a moot point, since you based that entire tirade off of the misconception that I was actually utilizing the declining Roman Empire as a completely interchangeable predictive model for the PRC.

No, if you had actually taken the time to read my posts, here and elsewhere on this site, you would see I deal purely in probability outcomes based on historical precedents in tandem with psychological profiles for both societies and individuals; while I (along with every other person), lack the ability to plot the exact course of events, I can form probable conclusions to events.

In this regard, the PRC, which resembles a thousand other autocracies, whose “economic miracle” has occurred many times before in China and elsewhere (sometimes with even more dramatic effects), whose various policies mirror failed attempts at power propagation (albeit synthesized into a unique governance model), and whose constant failure to anticipate the effects of repression and confrontation upon the human psyche becomes more and more egregious, well… Let’s just say that if the PRC actually manages to survive without becoming something akin to a macrocosm of North Korea, it would be a first in world history. Given the CPC has already made so many of the mistakes that were made with similar autocracies in the past, and whose general effects fell within predictive models, there is little cause for them to be hopeful.

I admit, of course, that I do abhor the PRC Government, as it represents the antithesis of the ideals of socialism I hold to be the best chance at humanity’s future; that government’s constant disregard for human life and dignity in the pursuit of power goes in the face of the core values virtually all non-self-destructive cultures hold dear. However, while I accept that all people are subject to bias, including myself, the fact that what I value is the sustainment and flourishing of all human life limits any obfuscatory effects upon my aforementioned models; I have no social, political, or cultural allegiances beyond that of humanity itself.

If the PRC actually lived up to half of the non-nationalistic ideals it espouses I would be defending it right now, for it would be a government that seeks to better humanity and would be well-suited to survive in the future (at least in its capacity as a government, though in the long-run any such system of authority would have to give way for humanity’s survival and prosperity); however, this is not the case. In any case, I have no need to prove myself; I don’t presume to have all the answers beyond the belief in the equality and value of human life.

Henry003
February 4, 2012 at 17:19

Oro invectus your rumbling doesn’t prove anything. You seem to make mountain out of ant mole. All those deficiency like corruption and inequality is normal in developing economy and China is not the worst when it come to corruption . There is no slave labor in china. Even the migrant has the power to withheld their service . And many do because they found job close to their home. contrary to your believe China make great progress in urbanization reaching to 50% now compare to 20% when CCP come to the power. Life is getting better by the day. Irrespective of all the deficiency there is no stomach for Beijing spring. You seem to suffer from Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Poor decisions due to these biases have been found in military, political, and organizational contexts, as well as in the process of getting to know other people.
– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

John Chan
February 4, 2012 at 13:16

@Oro Invictus,
China has been supporting American way of life with sweet and blood, and China has no means to threaten American dominance of the world, why does Kaplan have to derive theories to demonize China as a threat to the survival of the USA? Do you think you are excusing his sinister motive rather easily?

Smear others who look at the root of problems does not make the root of the problems goes away. You need to ask the question, USA is thousands miles away on the other side of the Pacific, why is China’s defense which hardly can get far from its coastline a threat to the USA that has been portrayed by Kaplan?

China has been supporting American way of life with sweet and blood, and finance USA with trillions of hard earned cash, why does Kaplan portray such supportive nation to the USA as a enemy to destroy the USA? Which nation in the world gives more support to USA in material and money than China? What is the motive behind Kaplan’s theory to demonize China?

Kaplan turns right into wrong and black into white, it bears the question why does Kaplan do it on something that makes no logical sense, other than racism?

ACT
February 4, 2012 at 07:10

@ Passerby

i would argue that ANY conventional force is vunlerable to this; China itself invaded Vietnam within 15 years after the US left, and got the same result that much faster; a humiliating defeat and a forced retreat. a conventional army that bases itself on legal conventions on the treatment of civilians can never hope to root out an asymmetric force that effectively melds with the local civilian population. The only way you would be able to quell such a force is to do what the Nazis did in world war II: “if you don’t cooperate, you die. for every one of our soldiers dead, we kill 100 of your countrymen, starting with your loved ones”. the only way you would be able to do otherwise is if you basically blanketed the country with aircraft that had magnetometers strong enough to detect small metallic concentrations from high altitudes, such as individual weapons. Deprive the populace of weaponry and they have no way to harm you.

ACT
February 4, 2012 at 07:02

would you mind explaining you last point further?

i can honestly say that you’ve interested me.

in regards to the opinion of Chinese generals and US generals, when do you think that this will all come to a head? we have two nations–one of which is perhaps the oldest in the world and the other which is a relatively young nation–who both seem to have a very notable history of deeming themselves morally, culturally and racially superior to all others on the face of the earth. Both the United States and China have also survived via the forced absorption, exclusion or outright genocide of other peoples.

in simple terms, you have an unstoppable force (the United States in conventional conflicts) vs an immovable object(China throughout the ages). The two are bound to come to conflict at one point or another, something that i would not wish on anyone, as the ensuing war would result in the loss of millions, perhaps billions, of lives.

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