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Robert Kaplan has written an excellent, thought-provoking piece in Foreign Affairs. He argues that China’s insatiable demand for energy and natural resources is driving its strategic policy, as it expands its military reach and influence both on continental as well as in maritime Asia. It is not that China has a master plan for world domination, rather, like all rising powers, (nineteenth-century America included) the logic of its growth requires it to play a greater international role.
To its west China is strengthening its grip on Xinjiang and Tibet. Soon it will complete two major pipelines extending from Central Asia to Xinjiang. In Tibet it is building roads and railroads to extract resources, pacify the restive population, and keep it out of Indian hands. China is marching southward as well, as it increases control over Burma, which may provide Beijing with a port and maritime access to the Bay of Bengal. And it is trying, as Kaplan says, to “divide and conquer” other ASEAN states, who, in response to American inattention, are beginning to team up in opposition to China’s influence. According to Kaplan, Beijing’s main objective on the Korean peninsula is to help North Korea develop into a more “modern authoritarian” state, so that it remains a buffer against U.S.-allied South Korea. Even so, Kaplan writes, China would not necessarily be opposed to a unified Korea that, for economic reasons, would be a part of “Greater China’s” sphere, and eventually lead to the removal of American troops from South Korea.
According to Kaplan, as China looks to the seas along its eastern seaboard, it feels contained. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia are all, to varying degrees, U.S. allies unwilling to acquiesce in a Chinese breakout into the Pacific Ocean. China is trying to get out of this box by building up its submarine fleet and conventional cruise and ballistic missile force. In the end, according to Kaplan, Taiwan is the key to China’s naval breakout. Control of Taiwan would allow China to project power beyond the “first island” chain.
To its south, China strives for control of the South China Sea, both because it is a gateway to the Indian Ocean and because it is rich in natural resources. To that end, China has built a major naval base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Hainan Island could allow the Chinese navy unimpeded access to the seas’ major chokepoints.
While Kaplan’s assessment of China’s geostrategy sounds about right to me, it has also done its job in provoking some thoughts. I will offer three thoughts:
First, I do not agree that China can accomplish its continental consolidation through demographic efforts–populating Tibet, Xinjiang, the Russian Far East–or commercial relations alone. To do what Kaplan argues Beijing is trying–consolidate its land borders, extend its reach in Central Asia and Burma and Korea–China will also need to develop expeditionary land forces. Why? To respond to terrorist attacks, to prepare for a possible border war with India, and to advance its goals on the Korean peninsula in case of collapse and chaos in the North.
Second, Kaplan seems to endorse the “Garret plan” that is making its way around the Pentagon, a plan which, in the context of America’s regional political objectives, seems wrongheaded. The basic idea is to “do away with master bases” in Japan and South Korea and instead strengthen the U.S. presence in Oceania–on Guam and the Caroline, Northern Mariana, Solomon, and Marshal islands–while at the same time vastly expanding America’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean. This strategy would require Washington to upgrade defense relations with India-to use some of its outer islands-well as with Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore. The U.S. navy would still cooperate with the Japanese maritime self-defense force as well. This plan, according to Kaplan, would be less provocative to China while at the same time still allow the United States to play something more than the role of offshore balancer.
There are a number of problems with this plan. It is not clear that some of the countries that we would need for the plan to work would cooperate, especially after we pulled out of Japan and South Korea. A withdrawal from the “master bases” would be seen as a waning U.S. commitment to its allies. And, while it is true that the “first island chain” is becoming less defensible, it is not too late to take prudent steps to reverse this dangerous trend. We have not yet hardened air bases in Japan, stepped up efforts at missile defense, or sought better options for countering China’s missile force (How about the deployment by Japan of cruise and ballistic missiles along the Ryukus to target Chinese launchers?).
Third, Kaplan’s emphasis on the importance of Taiwan for geostrategy, rather than for geopolitics, is debatable. Taiwan would provide China with modern ports and China could extend its maritime surveillance capabilities. But unless we develop adequate defenses, China’s missiles forces will render U.S. military activity in the first island chain too costly whether China possesses Taiwan or not.
While Mahanians in and out of China would argue that acquiring more territory would extend China’s maritime reach, analysts focused on China’s missile forces would disagree. With better precision guided capability and longer ranges, China missile force may, over time, give the People’s Liberation Army air superiority over the first island chain, as well as allow it to target any surface ship approaching China from the Western Pacific. We still could take steps (hardening bases, seeking new bases, deploying better missile defenses, investing in more submarines and stealthy long range fighter-aircraft and bombers) that would make operations in the first island chain less risky, but if current trends continue, China will not need Taiwan to project power into the Pacific.
From a geostrategic perspective, Taiwan would only be important if we decided to use it to counter China’s missile or submarine force. But we are not doing that now nor are we likely to in the future. Since we are decidedly not using Taiwan as our “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” China does not need to consider it a barrier to its current military planning. Taiwan’s geographic importance to China may be overstated.
That brings me back to broad U.S. objectives. Taiwan’s importance is the same as the importance of our Japanese, South Korean, and Philippine allies–more geopolitical than geostrategic. These countries have embraced the international system that the United States created and defended after World War II. They are democratic states with free market economies that all want to be part of what used to be called the “West,” the worldwide club of modern, advanced industrial democracies. Washington’s interests are better served when economically vibrant democracies are free from the control of other great powers – this better ensures that the international system remains hospitable to us.
In my opinion, for geopolitical as well as geostrategic reasons, the United States military should maintain a (more defendable) presence on the territory of as many U.S. Asian allies as welcome it, at least until all can be assured that China will be a responsible and democratic great power, uninterested in creating its own exclusive economic or military spheres. That means we need to work harder to help our allies build capabilities that help frustrate China’s military plans rather than pulling back and relying mostly on offshore bases.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.
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