Kaplan on China's Rise
Robert Kaplan has a new article in the June issue of the Atlantic Monthly, this one on the U. S. response to China's coming rise as a naval power: "How We Would Fight China."
The article's title suggests a "hot war," but Kaplan thinks that the 'contest' can be kept a "second Cold War which will link China and the United States in a future that may stretch over several generations."
Except that he's not really thinking in terms of the Russo-American Cold War. He's thinking Bismarckian Realpolitik:
"In the Pacific . . . a Bismarckian arrangement still prospers, helped along by the pragmatism of our Hawaii-based military officers, five time zones removed from the ideological hothouse of Washington, D.C. In fact, PACOM [i.e., U.S. Pacific Command] represents a much purer version of Bismarck's imperial superstructure than anything the Bush administration created prior to invading Iraq. As Henry Kissinger writes in Diplomacy (1994), Bismarck forged alliances in all directions from a point of seeming isolation, without the constraints of ideology. He brought peace and prosperity to Central Europe by recognizing that when power relationships are correctly calibrated, wars tend to be avoided."
Kaplan is referring to this passage, page 122 of Kissinger's book:
"[H]ow was Prussia to sustain Realpolitik all alone in the center of the continent? . . . Bismarck's answer . . . was to forge alliances and relationships in all directions, so that Prussia would always be closer to each of the contending parties than they were to one another. In this manner, a position of seeming isolation would enable Prussia to manipulate the commitments of the other powers and to sell its support to the highest bidder."
How this policy would proceed remains to be seen, but it took a Bismarck to maintain it working despite its complexity, and after he had passed from the scene, his successors were not up to the task. Some historians think that the First World War was the consequence of their failure and thus, in part, the responsibility of Bismarck himself.
Perhaps in contrast to such a view, and certainly in contrast to Robert Kagan, who thinks that China's rise to power cannot be 'managed' and who argues that "[r]arely have rising powers risen without sparking a major war that reshaped the international system to reflect new realities of power," Kaplan thinks that China's rise can be 'accomodated':
"Only a . . . [Bismarckian] pragmatic approach [that correctly calibrates power relationships] will allow us to accommodate China's inevitable re-emergence as a great power. The alternative will be to turn the earth of the twenty-first century into a battlefield. Whenever great powers have emerged or re-emerged on the scene (Germany and Japan in the early decades of the twentieth century, to cite two recent examples), they have tended to be particularly assertive and therefore have thrown international affairs into violent turmoil. China will be no exception. Today the Chinese are investing in both diesel-powered and nuclear-powered submarines a clear signal that they intend not only to protect their coastal shelves but also to expand their sphere of influence far out into the Pacific and beyond."
Interestingly, Kaplan agrees with Kagan on a fundamental point: a rising great power throws international affairs into turmoil. But he holds that China will be acting out of its own "legitimate" interests:
"This [expansion of China's sphere of influence far out into the Pacific and beyond] is wholly legitimate. China's rulers may not be democrats in the literal sense, but they are seeking a liberated First World lifestyle for many of their 1.3 billion people and doing so requires that they safeguard sea-lanes for the transport of energy resources from the Middle East and elsewhere. Naturally, they do not trust the United States and India to do this for them. Given the stakes, and given what history teaches us about the conflicts that emerge when great powers all pursue legitimate interests, the result is likely to be the defining military conflict of the twenty-first century: if not a big war with China, then a series of Cold War style standoffs that stretch out over years and decades. And this will occur mostly within PACOM's area of responsibility."
And Kaplan expects the U.S. Military, rather than the American civilian leadership, to do the most clear-headed thinking in this upcoming conflict:
"To do their job well, military officers must approach power in the most cautious, mechanical, and utilitarian way possible, assessing and reassessing regional balances of power while leaving the values side of the political equation to the civilian leadership. This makes military officers, of all government professionals, the least prone to be led astray by the raptures of liberal internationalism and neo-conservative interventionism."
Clearly, Kaplan doesn't side with either Clinton's or Bush's approach to reforming the world in America's image. It's all about -- or should be all about -- protecting the legitimate interests of nations through balancing of power as power balances shift.
But I wonder if China sees it that way. I agree that China has legitimate interests, just as every nation does. But these can be distorted by past grievances, of which China has its share.