Interviews May 2005

Managing China

Robert D. Kaplan looks ahead to the great military and diplomatic challenge of the twenty-first century

In his cover story in the current Atlantic, Robert D. Kaplan urges us to look beyond the conflict in Iraq to a much more serious one that may be looming over the horizon. The great challenge of the twenty-first century, Kaplan argues, will be to somehow figure out how to shape—rather than fall prey to—China's inevitable economic and military rise. Kaplan describes his article "How We Would Fight China" as a "shot across the bow,"—a stark call to action designed to goad us into preparing for what he predicts will 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." There are plenty of signs that China is beginning to flex its military muscles. It has been investing in both nuclear and diesel submarines, developing long-range missiles, and strengthening its defensive capabilities. The worry, though, is not that China's military forces will come to match our own, but that the country will perfect a brand of asymmetric warfare that could humiliate the U.S. in the long-term.

Kaplan's thoughts on China are the product of extensive travels throughout the Pacific, talking to the noncommissioned soldiers and sailors for whom the "Chinese military challenge is already a reality." His book Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, the first of several he is writing on the military, will be published in September.

We spoke by telephone on May 16.

Katie Bacon

Your article paints a pretty alarming picture of the future of U.S.-Chinese relations if we don't make careful strategic and military choices in the coming years. Now that your article has been circulating for a few weeks, what sort of response has it been getting?

The article has elicited some rants on the Web that express the following concerns. First, that in return for highlighting the military viewpoint, I am granted unusual access to the military. In fact, I am granted access because I am willing to spend six months yearly away from my family, out of e-mail contact for weeks on end, living in tight quarters with enlisted men, on deployments that the public would find fascinating but rarely gets to hear about because they often lack hard-news value. Any reporter, including a left-wing one, willing to do this would find many doors open for him in the military. Second, and related, is the criticism that I have bought into the Pacific Command-Navy view of the world. The PACOM view of the world is one that I judge to be worth knowing, especially as it constitutes one of the big blocks of the China story that has gotten relatively little attention from the media. The PACOM viewpoint offends those on the right who see nothing good about China because it is not yet a democracy, and thus believe that the whole concept of managing and constraining China's military is doomed to fail without more hard-line policies. It also offends those on the other side of the political aisle, who define any reference to China's growing military capability as war-mongering. Pacific Command, whatever its shortcomings and internal divisions, falls in the reasonable middle between these extremes. My conclusion is expressed in the article's last "callout": that China's reemergence is natural and legitimate. But PACOM, as a military organization, is forced to think in worst-case scenarios, even as it chooses moderate Bismarckian methods to prevent their occurrence. I have internalized that outlook in my narrative.

Remember, we worst-cased the scenario in our original invasion of Iraq and got the best possible result. But we best-cased the occupation and got the worst possible result. Worst-casing China may be the way to peaceful outcomes.

This article introduces PACOM to the reader. That is probably the most important thing that it does, because I'm making a bet in this article: that PACOM is going to be in the news a lot over the next years and decades. Even if China emerges peacefully, there is going to be relatively more military activity in the Pacific. Yet PACOM is not monolithic, and will change. The new combatant commander, Admiral William Fallon, a carrier aviator, comes from a different tradition than the previous PACOM commander, Admiral Thomas Fargo, a submariner. Admiral Fallon may turn out to be more of a traditionalist in regards to China and other matters. Submariners—who have been very active in the post-Cold War off the coasts of the Balkans, Iraq, and elsewhere—can tend to be a bit more aggressive.

I can't help wondering why China would want to shake things up with the U.S. Wouldn't a Cold War-type scenario with the U.S. just slow China's progress toward becoming an economic giant?

Of course, but the military doesn't have the luxury of concentrating on intent. It is forced to deal with capabilities. China, one can make a very strong argument, has no real incentive to shake things up with us. But if you look at their military appropriations, if you look at the ships and submarines that they're building, if you look at how they are getting serious about developing a noncommissioned officer corps, you see two things. One, is that they do have ambitions beyond their own coastlines; and the other is that, unlike that of the former Soviet Union, the Chinese military is dynamic. A military analyst looking at the former Soviet Union throughout the span of the Cold War would not see much change. The Chinese military is doing one thing one year and improving dramatically the next. It has a totally different personality than the Soviet military. China is showing signs of becoming every bit as dynamic on the military side as it is on the economic side.

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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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