By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
The Obama administration "pivot" to the Pacific, formally announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last November and reiterated more recently by the president himself, might appear like a reassertion of America's imperial tendencies just at the time when Washington should be concentrating on the domestic economy. But in fact, the pivot was almost inevitable.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, signaling communism's defeat in Europe, security experts talked about a shift in diplomatic and military energies to the Pacific. But Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to a decadelong preoccupation with the Middle East, with the U.S. Army leading a land war against Iraq in 1991 and the Navy and Air Force operating no-fly zones for years thereafter. Then came 9/11, and the Bush administration's initiation of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a response. Finally, the ending of both those conflicts is in sight, and the United States, rather than return to quasi-isolationism as it has done with deleterious effect after other ground wars in its history, is attempting to pivot its focus to the geographical heart of the global economy: the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The Indian Ocean is the world's energy interstate, across which passes crude oil and natural gas from the Arabian Peninsula and Iranian Plateau to the burgeoning, middle-class urban sprawls of East Asia. Though we live in a jet and information age, 90 percent of all commercial goods that travel from one continent to another do so by container ship, and half of those goods in terms of global tonnage — and one-third in terms of monetary value — traverse the South China Sea, which connects the Indian Ocean with the Western Pacific. Moreover, the supposedly energy-rich South China Sea is the economic hub of world commerce, where international sea routes coalesce. And it is the U.S. Navy and Air Force, more than any other institutions, that have kept those sea lines of communication secure, thus allowing for post-Cold War globalization in the first place. This is the real public good that the United States provides the world.
But now a new challenge looms for the United States: a rising China as demonstrated by the totality of its power — its geographical proximity to the South China Sea and environs; its economic heft, making it the largest trading partner of most if not all of the littoral nations (despite economic troubles in China itself); and its expanding submarine fleet. Beijing has been buying smart, investing in subs, ballistic missiles, and space and cyber warfare as part of a general defense build-up. China has no intention of going to war with the United States, but it does seek to impede in time of crisis U.S. military access to the South China Sea and the rest of maritime Asia. From my travels I have seen that this has led to the use of the term "Finlandization" throughout Southeast Asia, whereby China, through the combination of its economic and military power, will undermine the sovereignty of countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, all of which are de facto or de jure U.S. allies.
The country that is the biggest target for China is Vietnam, whose seaboard forms the western edge of the South China Sea and whose economically dynamic population of 87 million makes it a future maritime Turkey, a midlevel power in its own right. If China can "Finlandize" Vietnam, Beijing will in practical terms capture the South China Sea. This explains Washington's increasing military and interest in Hanoi. Whereas Vietnam and other littoral countries claim parts of the South China Sea, China cites a "historic" nine-dashed line that encompasses almost the entire sea itself.
Governmental and policy elites in Beijing recognize the need to compromise on the "cow's tongue," as the nine-dashed line is called, but nationalistic elements in China won't let them, at least not yet. The Chinese are simply unable to psychologically divorce their claims on the nearby South China Sea from the territorial depredations directed against China by the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To Chinese officials, the South China Sea represents blue national soil.
Of course, American diplomacy has been active on these matters for years, but U.S. diplomats would lack credibility if they were not backed by a robust military presence in the future. This is what the pivot is all about: The United States does not intend to desert maritime Asia in its hour of need. As one high-ranking diplomat of a South China Sea country told me, if the United States were to withdraw an aircraft carrier strike group from the region it would be a "game-changer," ushering the region toward Finlandization.
Additionally, China is helping to build state-of-the-art port facilities all along the Indian Ocean, on the other side of the Malacca Strait from the South China Sea, in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Kenya. These projects all have specific commercial motives promoted by individual Chinese companies, and in some cases, such as Gwadar in Pakistan, are in the middle of politically unstable areas, making their use problematic. But this is how most empires begin — as speculative-commercial and policing ventures. The Venetian empire in the Mediterranean began as an attempt to suppress piracy along the Adriatic coast, something Chinese warships are doing near the Horn of Africa. Then there were the purely commercial ventures of the British and Dutch East India companies in their early days, which led to full-fledged imperial domains.
A profound socio-economic crisis in China itself — something that by no means can be ruled out — might have the effect of slowing this quasi-imperial rise. But that hasn't happened quite yet, and in the meantime, the United States is forced to react to China's growing military and commercial capabilities.
But the change in U.S. policy focus is not literally about containing China. "Containment" is a word of Cold War vintage related to holding ground against the Soviet Union, a country with which the United States had a one-dimensional, hostile relationship. The tens of thousands of American students and corporate executives in Beijing attest to the rich, multi-dimensional relationship the United States enjoys with China. China is so much freer than the former Soviet Union that to glibly state that China is "not a democracy" is to miss the point of China's rise entirely.
China is an altogether dynamic society that is naturally expanding its military and economic reach in the Indo-Pacific region much as the United States expanded in the Atlantic and Greater Caribbean following the Civil War. But the rise of any new great power needs to be managed, especially as it is accompanied by the rise of Indian, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean and Australian sea power, even as Japan and South Korea modernize their sea and air fleets with the latest combat systems. Make no mistake, the Indo-Pacific is in the midst of an arms race that complicates the security of the region's sea lanes.
Were the United States not now to turn to the Indo-Pacific, it would risk a multipolar military order arising up alongside an already existent multipolar economic and political order. Multipolar military systems are more unstable than unipolar and bipolar ones because there are more points of interactions and thus more opportunities for miscalculations, as each country seeks to readjust the balance of power in its own favor. U.S. military power in the Indo-Pacific is needed not only to manage the peaceful rise of China but also to stabilize a region witnessing the growth of indigenous civil-military post-industrial complexes.
If American power was diminished, China, India and other powers would be far more aggressive toward each other than they are now, for they all benefit from the secure sea lines of communication provided by the U. S. Navy and Air Force.
Clinton's diplomatic overture to Myanmar and President Barack Obama's plan to rotate 2,500 Marines through Australia are symbolic of the political and military effort to distribute U.S. power throughout the Indo-Pacific. Myanmar could simply continue as a satellite of Beijing were Clinton not to do as she has. Australia, a country of only 23 million inhabitants, will spend $279 billion over the next two decades on submarines, fighter jets and other hardware. This is not militarism, but the reasonable response of a nation at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans in order to account for its own defense in the face of rapidly changing power dynamics. Australia might even become the premier alliance partner for the United States in the Anglosphere in the 21st century, much as Britain, whose defense budget is plummeting, was in the 20th century.
The pivot is as yet an aspiration, not a declaration, since it assumes that events in the Middle East will permit U.S. officials the luxury of shifting assets elsewhere. But events in the Middle East never permit as such. Still, if the United States can at least avoid further land engagements in the Middle East, expect the pivot to set the tone for America's Asia policy for years to come, much as President Richard Nixon's trip to China did for Asia policy in decades past.