Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is also the former chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor and was a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. He is the author of many books, including Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific and the forthcoming In Europe’s Shadow.
Following a speech on Asia at the Polish parliament on July 9, he spoke with Rafał Tomański. A shortened version of that interview follows.
Do you think that the age of the Asia is coming?
I don’t believe that’s that simple. Asia can go through a big shock. If the Chinese economy was to implode – which I don’t believe, but it might happen – Asia would suddenly matter less. Such an implosion of the Chinese economy would affect Asian countries much more than it affects Europe and the United States. You have to remember that power is relative. One can be declining as a power but still have a lot of influence. It’s not going to be really an Asian century. Asian languages may also become more prevalent not as a main ones but as a secondary languages.
Excluding the implosion of Chinese economy, what do you think could surprise Beijing most? They seem to expect everything.
And they seem to have a plan for everything. Everything is very planned out and calculated. One thing I didn’t mentioned in the lecture was that Chinese aggression is much more elegant and sophisticated than the Russian aggression. What do the Russians do? The guys in black ski masks and assault rifles – militia thugs. What do the Chinese do? They’re sending an oil rig into Vietnamese waters. Than they get a lot of criticism and they pull it back. They don’t use their navy; they send their coast guard to make territorial claims. It’s all very elegant. Designed to be a page three story, not a page one story. Very insidious.
In a long run, the ability of the United States to contain China may actually be more challenging than to contain Russia because the Russian aggression is just so convertible. The Chinese are very organized and deliberate in everything they do. What can surprise them? We mentioned the economy. I think that the stock market [surprised] the leadership. I think real dramatic insurgency and unrest in the West with the Uighur Muslims could really surprise them. I think also Vietnamese or Japanese aggression can be surprising too. I don’t think the Chinese are expecting them to react, that they assume that no country in the region is going to start a conflict. They think that the only way the conflict can be started is to have it by accident.
So approaching the aggressor might be more surprising than a retreat?
Right. That’s the opportunity, the moment of surprise. Another element and not even a surprise is the moment the North Korean regime collapses. When Kim Jong-un is assassinated by somebody in his inner circle or something. That would be like a wreck; like implosion and chaos. That’s not a surprise but a Chinese nightmare for years already. They have almost resigned to have in such moment two million or so refugees on the North Korean border. I think North Korea, ethnic unrest, continued unexpected turbulence in their own economy, and Japan or Vietnam actually starting a conflict which I don’t think they will do. Because when you start a conflict with China you have to know how you are going to finish it. Or you have to at least have a plan. If you start a conflict with China, it gets really messy how it’s going to end.
You mentioned the possibility of an incident in the South China Sea – perhaps an aerial one between China and Vietnam or China and Japan. What would be the consequences of an incident if it arises?
If you think that world markets were not that much affected by the war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan or the chaos in Libya, it had some effect. It reduced the Iraqi oil exports, but we have to remember their levels were very low because of the sanctions against Saddam Hussain for decades. We can say that financial markets were not that much affected. But if you have – just directly speaking – a military conflict that involved China, Japan, United States and Vietnam – that would seriously affect financial markets. Not just in Asia, but worldwide I would argue. We would be talking about a conflict that involves world’s second and third largest economies; even South Korea and other significantly sized economies. I think the effect on world’s markets would be profound if there is to be a shooting war in East Asia.
In your speech, you mentioned the Indian Ocean as a place for the future, particularly since relative to the Pacific, it has few institutions and less of a major power presence. How do you see this playing out?
First of all, the Indian Ocean is unique. There are no superpowers along it. United States and Europe are not there, it’s sort of a metaphor of a world in the future. It will be a much more fragmented global world. The Indian Ocean has also parts within it that create their own sort of systems, conflicts and security. You have the Bay of Bengal, which used to be united under British Empire, but now when the British left the Indian community is divided because of the migrants in the area. You have the Arabian Sea which is essentially the greater Persian Gulf and the Red Sea which is a sort of a maritime Middle East. The Bay of Bengal can be described as well as a maritime Asia. The Indian Ocean is still somewhat fragmented, but that’s technology that makes the world smaller, these two sides are going to fuse together.
Rafał Tomański is a regular contributor to Rzeczpospolita daily, a Polish national daily. He graduated from Warsaw University he writes books on modern Japan and on Asian affairs.