Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to former President Jimmy Carter, has written another important book that devotes considerable attention to U.S. policy in Asia. In Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, he proposes a new American strategy that would see Washington maneuver deftly between the local powers in the region while eschewing “military engagement in mainland Asia.” His bottom line is a familiar one: never fight a land war in Asia. But while few would find such advice objectionable, it’s also increasingly out of touch with new geostrategic realities. Military power on Eurasian landmass is increasingly oriented seaward. As a result, the United States may find itself engaged, however reluctantly, with land powers at sea.
In Brzezinski’s view, the geopolitical dynamics between China, a continental power, and the United States, a seafaring nation, are analogous to those between an elephant and a whale. The comparative military advantages that both sides enjoy on land and at sea respectively are so entrenched and so overwhelming that neither possesses the physical wherewithal or the political will to dictate events in the other’s geographic domain. Thus, a natural and stable balance between the Chinese elephant and the American whale prevails. The implication is that Washington should accept China’s preeminence on the Asian mainland while staying focused on its dominant role in maritime Asia.
Adding a twist to this equation, Brzezinski contends that the real competition for primacy in Asia will likely take place between two Asian elephants, namely China and India. Indeed, he foresees an intense and potentially violent Sino-Indian rivalry that will be fueled by such “subjective feelings” as contempt, envy, and fear. Given the limits of seapower in such a continental contest, Brzezinski counsels the United States to stay “detached” and refuse formal strategic ties with India that could entangle Washington in a major landward commitment. An aloof approach would see the United States emerge as a classic offshore balancer, leaving it free to play one land power against the other or to watch China and India exhaust themselves as Washington husbands its strength on the sidelines.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Such a nimble strategy is highly appealing in a cost-conscious era and is certainly worth pursuing. Yet, the geopolitical trends in the past decades suggest that a noncommittal U.S. posture will be difficult to sustain. Intense globalization and related technological trends, including the widespread proliferation and availability of long-range precision strike weapons, have increasingly blurred the continental and maritime domains. The geographical barrier that previously separated land and sea powers is now largely an artifice of a bygone era. Not surprisingly, China increasingly exhibits the conviction that an ascent to Asian primacy requires mastery of maritime affairs.
Traditionally, China’s military strategy was oriented toward the continental side of its territory. Except for a few occasions during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the Chinese empire largely tolerated other powers’ naval supremacy in the seas off its coasts. This coexistence of Chinese hegemony on the mainland and foreign dominance in the maritime domain was the result of three major factors, none of which exists in the present day.