Skip to main content
the next debate

Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington and the author, most recently, of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea And The End of a Stable Pacific.Sally Montana

In this series, Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada's leading public-affairs forum, talks to renowned analysts and policy-makers about issues and trends that are just over the horizon

Why do you consider the South China Sea one of the world's more important pieces of geo-political real estate?

The South China Sea is to China what the Greater Caribbean was to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The United States became a great power, geopolitically, by dominating the Caribbean. Once it could do that, it could dominate the Western Hemisphere, and once dominating the Western Hemisphere, it could affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere, which was what the world wars and Cold War were all about.

The South China Sea is no less important for China. If China can gain dominance, it then can have access to the wider Pacific and, through the Strait of Malacca, into the greater Indian Ocean, which is the global energy interstate, bringing all the oil and natural gas from the Middle East to the population zones of Asia. So this is really big stuff. Also, if China can dominate the South China Sea, then it will, effectively, "Finlandize" countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, which would affect the entire balance of power in Asia.

Talk about this idea of Finlandization. Is this China's grand strategy?

During the Cold War, Finlandization was a successful Soviet imperial strategy. Essentially, it allowed Finland to be democratic, free, but constrained its foreign policy, so that Finland could not join NATO and/or do other things that would undermine Russian interests. It was a cheap form of colonialism, in a way – unlike the expensive form, which was the Warsaw Pact from Poland south to Bulgaria, which ultimately failed. Finlandization, in the case of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia would mean that these countries would remain nominally independent, but the parameters of their foreign policies would essentially be written in Beijing. This strategy would also bring China two or three giant steps forward to dominating Taiwan.

Why is China suddenly escalating tensions with its neighbours?

After the Second World War and during the Cold War, the nations of the South China Sea were internally focused. Japan, China and Vietnam all had their wars, Malaysia had its insurgencies. For decades these countries could not project power outward. That has all changed. They are now building large navies and air forces and, lo and behold, they now have active conflicts in terms of who owns what in the South China Sea. The other thing that's driving this is that China, as we know, is no longer experiencing double-digit economic growth rates year after year. As a result, China's going to face a more restive population at home, and one of the ways you deal with economic and political discontent is you dial up nationalism, and that is what they're doing. So a more aggressive posture gives Chinese leaders more of a political cushion. Even autocrats are dependent on public opinion, in the 21st century.

Given its interdependence with China, isn't it inevitable that America will back down?

Yes. What American policy has to do is steer between two extremes. One extreme is to try to prevent the Finlandization of the nations of the South China Sea, but the other extreme is to avoid a shooting war with China, because the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and will be for the foreseeable future. So the U.S. has to defend a treaty ally, like the Philippines, but it cannot allow a country like the Philippines to lure the United States into a military conflict with China. It's a very tricky passage, so to speak, to navigate your way through, but that is the challenge right now, especially for the U.S. Defence Department.

Is there a strategy here for the United States to marshal the nations of the South China Sea basin into an anti-China bloc?

The United States has to show that its navy is not going to withdraw, and may even ratchet up its presence in the South and East China Sea. This is not the time for any kind of a pullback in terms of our military presence in the region, because anything like that would indicate weakness. We have to show that we are prepared to push back against China, to a degree, without getting into a military conflict. The real challenge for the Pentagon is slowing down China's transformation into the dominant military power in South Asia. Simply because you cannot prevent something from happening does not mean you cannot delay it for 10 years or 15 years. In a decade or a decade and a half, the whole world may shift. China may have an internal rebellion due to an economic crisis, or the nature of the Chinese system itself could change.

Is there a risk that future tensions could be Vietnam-China as opposed to U.S.-China?

It could. Vietnam is the most serious challenger to China in the South China Sea. The Philippines may be a treaty ally of the U.S., like Japan and South Korea, but the Philippines is a very weak institutionally and has little in the way of real military power. Vietnam, on the other hand, is a much stronger actor. Vietnam has a long tradition, going back hundreds of years, of conflicts with China. What Vietnam is trying to do is ensnare the United States in its power play with China by providing American warships with resupply capabilities along its South China Sea coast. Vietnam needs the United States as a de facto balancer against China.

Most people think of naval power as some 18th- and 19th-century concept. You think it's still the key to geopolitical influence?

Absolutely. In 2007, when everyone was engaged in counterinsurgency discussions and dirty land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I published a long piece in The Atlantic Monthly talking about the importance of naval power. Remember, we are in an age of globalization – and an age of globalization is an age of container shipping and an age where navies are very important to protect the sea lines of communication and commerce. Most human beings, the overwhelming majority, live near coastlines, so we know navies will be key to the future. Also navies and air forces, used as a combined force, can project power over large swathes of the globe. Ground forces, like armies or marine corps, are there really for unpredictable contingencies. It's really your navy and your air force that make you a great power. The U.S. Navy is America's primary strategic instrument, much more so than its nuclear-weapons arsenal.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interact with The Globe