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.” 

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