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.

Is there any consensus on how we should be reacting to China's rise?

Both Democrats and Republicans realize that China constitutes some sort of military challenge. But there's debate over what we should do about it. How much can you ramp up in the Pacific without provoking the Chinese and forcing them to make exactly the opposite decisions you want them to make? You want them to invest their military money in defensive weaponry, not in offensive weaponry. One phrase you hear often from the American military is that we need to help the Chinese make the right choices, for both our sakes.

Do the base closings announced last week reflect the military's strategic shift toward China?

Yes. During the Cold War—and submarine warfare is an example of this—tensions were hottest in the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean, because if you look at a map you see that that's where the Soviet ports were close to. One of the things behind the closing of the Groton submarine base may very well have been that there is more need for submarines on the West Coast than on the East Coast, as the Pacific becomes more important than the Atlantic. But the closing of the Groton base is part of a larger story that the media has missed. This gets off the subject a bit, but I think it's of interest to people. We've just closed probably one of the last big bases left in the Northeast. Now all East Coast submarining will be done out of places like Kings Bay, Georgia. In other words, we've increased the division between red and blue states.

You talk about how the military must have hoped that its vigorous response to the Asian tsunami would help gain support for military-basing rights in that critical part of the world. Do you think the response moved it closer to that goal?

Yes. Remember, I'm talking not about bases but basing rights, which is a very subtle, diplomatic mechanism. You don't want your own bases. You don't want these big Burger King bases, because they are an affront to the sovereignty of the country in question and they usually mean—as we learned in the build-up to the war in Iraq—that the country won't let you use the bases precisely when you need to use them. So, the future is not about big American bases. It's about a favorable diplomatic context in countries that have their own bases, which we will provide upkeep for. Then, when we do need access to them, we will have it. Humanitarian exercises like the tsunami-relief effort help this diplomatic context.

I remember with the tsunami there was so much attention on the fact that the Indonesians wanted everyone back on their ships at the end of the day. To me, it almost seemed as if this might have made it even harder to achieve any basing rights.

What that showed was just how sensitive the host country is. In fact, a week before the issue emerged in the media about this Indonesian sensitivity, the U.S. Navy was already getting worried and talking about pulling the ships further off shore. The wonderful thing about carrier and other naval-based forces is that they can get things accomplished on land without a big footprint, because the troops can go back to their ships at night. And when they're back at night, they don't go to bars, they don't get in trouble. There are no incidents. There are all these subsidiary benefits to having an offshore rather than an onshore presence.

Right. But then you do point out the risk that a carrier might present in any future conflict with China, because it provides a target that eventually they'll figure out how to attack.

That's kind of a middle long-range risk. We will have aircraft carriers or the equivalent of them through most of this new century. The question is, Should we invest in building even more of them? Or rather, should we just keep upgrading the ones we have in a slow gradual phase-out over many decades? This is something about which there are terrible fights that get very, very technical. The bad thing about putting all your marbles in carriers is that at some point adversaries will be able to penetrate their defense shield. The good thing about them, as you saw during the tsunami, is they're offshore bases for all intents and purposes.

Yes, I like the line in your article where you say, "Never provide your adversary with only a few problems to solve, ... because if you do, he'll solve them."

Right, right. Anyone who says, "Here's what we should do in the Pacific," is wrong. We have to go in many different directions.

You talk about the urgent need to "go unconventional" against China, focusing on stealth operations using small vessels which could zip around the Pacific and land without being detected. Is this the type of transformation that Rumsfeld is talking about when he says he wants a leaner, meaner military? How willing, say, would the Navy be to reinvent itself in this way?

Policy wonks, intellectuals, and journalists have pet theories—that the military should go in this direction or that direction. But policy makers inside the Pentagon don't have the luxury of following one pet theory or another. They have to be able to build a military that can respond to a variety of challenges. For instance, it's clear that we will probably need tanks a lot less in the future than we did in the twentieth century. But does that mean we should stop making tanks altogether? Probably not. The Navy needs to prepare for several scenarios. One, as I mentioned in the piece, it has be prepared for major war. It has to be prepared for using a carrier battle group as an offshore platform as it was used in Iraq and in Afghanistan—which provides power-projection. But the one thing the Navy has to get a lot better at is being light and lethal. We've read a lot about how the future is unconventional war and counterinsurgency. Well, there's a naval element to this, too. Just as a marine platoon can get the most done when it sends just a few people to live inside a village, the Navy may find that in the future it can get more done with a bunch of smaller, cheaper ships that deposit a few commandos or even humanitarian relief workers on the shore in the middle of the night than it can with bigger, more conventional platforms. The battlefield in the world is increasingly empty, meaning that we're fighting all over the world but the number of combatants you find in any particular place is very small. So when you set out to kill the adversary, it's finding them that's the difficult part.

You argue that countries like Japan and Australia "want more military engagement with the United States, to counter the rise of the Chinese navy." What's the chance that countries like these that are currently allied with the U.S. might decide at some point that it's more in their interest to ally themselves with China?

Well, here is something that I didn't have space to go into in the piece that's very, very important. We have real honest-to-goodness powerful allies in the Pacific. Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Thailand are serious nations, with very serious militaries that we need. For example, they have diesel submarines and we don't. So we're going to have to listen to our allies in the Pacific to a much greater extent than we've had to listen to our allies in the Atlantic in recent years. In the case of each of these Pacific nations, China is or will soon be its biggest trading partner. And that means that none of those countries will tolerate an un-nuanced, aggressive U.S. military posture in the Pacific. This gets back to the theme that PACOM, to its credit, represents the middle ground between neo-conservative interventionists, on the one hand, who are always critical of China, and those who see China only as a misunderstood friend-of-sorts. Managing China is a matter of constraining without provoking. And if we don't adhere to that nuanced military posture, our Pacific allies will force it on us.

But at some point it seems like these countries might see it as more in their interest to ally themselves with China than with the U.S.

Thailand has a long history of individualism vis-a-vis China. Australia certainly has. And Japan is developing; it's coming out of its pacifistic cocoon and quickly becoming more and more comfortable with its own military. I trust these countries to adhere to the middle ground that will keep us honest. In other words, I'm impressed; I'm upbeat on our Pacific allies.

It seems like more so than on our European allies.

Well, our European allies live a very comfortable lifestyle. They were strategically protected by us during the Cold War. And there doesn't seem to be much they're willing to fight for. Our Pacific allies may turn out to be different.

You write a fair amount about the importance, for us, of having NATO prosper. Could you talk about why we can't just focus on our Pacific allies and leave NATO out of this? And if it's a given that we can't, how do we push NATO toward being a more robust military power?

All right, two things. First of all, the Dutch had a big military presence in the Indonesian archipelago until recently in history. The Spanish had a big presence in the Marianas Islands and in the Philippines through a good part of their history. The British certainly had in Singapore and other places. And the French in Polynesia. So Europe coming back to the Pacific in a naval way is not out of keeping with modern history. It's closing a circle more than anything. There's nothing outrageous about this proposition. The second thing is, I'm well aware, and I believe I spell this out in the article, that NATO is not in good shape. And I'm not predicting that NATO will re-rise. All I'm saying is that NATO's best hope for re-rise will have a strong naval element.

So in terms of strategic geopolitics could NATO help be a counterweight to China?

We're not going to have a balance of power relationship with China that's in our interest while we have terrible relations with Europe. Forget about that. We need allies now more than ever. We've made some big mistakes in the recent years on this front, and China is a good motive for us to work harder on our European relations.

Now, of course, in this month's Atlantic there's a piece by Benjamin Schwarz where he is obviously coming at the issue from a different perspective.

Yes, that was an intelligent piece. The pieces are really more complementary than they are adversarial, in the sense that they both talk about how to manage China's reemergence. China will reemerge. It will reemerge militarily as much as it has economically, though the military is obviously lagging behind because China's economic reemergence has been so sudden. But the military one will follow. China's position as a great military power in the Pacific is probably legitimate. The Pacific will not be an American lake in the future, as I write in the piece. Given all that, how can we attain a result that allows China to reemerge without war of any consequence happening? In my opinion, as I write in the piece, it's about containment, though that is a very loaded word.

What about North Korea and the brewing crisis there. Obviously the crisis is growing right now and you're talking about China in the future. But is there a chance that as China's strategic power grows, it might be the one to lean on North Korea to curb its aggression?

On North Korea, I take a long view. As I said in the piece, some people in Pacific Command think that North Korea is not long for this world, and that the main issue out there is will a unified Korea be pro-Chinese or not. Now, not everyone takes that point of view. I think that a war on the Korean peninsula would be more horrific than anything we've seen in Iraq with the counterinsurgency. Therefore, a primary goal of U.S. policy has to be that if North Korea is in fact a declining state, we have to manage its decline peacefully just as we have to manage the incline of China peacefully.

Could you talk a little bit more than you did in the piece about your experience being embedded on a Navy destroyer, the USS Benfold, and what insights you gained?

In fact, I've just returned from an embedding experience on a fast-attack nuclear submarine, the USS Houston. What was fascinating about both experiences was the difference in culture between the surface navy and the sub-surface navy. A destroyer is a civilization unto itself in the midst of the ocean. It has men and women. It has different subcultures of enlisted people and officers. There's more space, though it doesn't seem like that when you first get on. A submarine, rather than a civilization, is like one organism, like a human being who's replicated himself over and over again. Submarines don't have women; spaces are much closer; there's less of a distinction between enlisted men and officers. Much of what submariners do is secret, because of the very nature of it. It's underwater. So it's almost like being embedded in an intelligence agency rather than in the military. It's a much more closed, tense, screwed-tight environment psychologically. What was wonderful about the destroyer experience was that you met officers and enlisted men and women who were much more normal than the kinds of people I've met in the Marines and the Army's Special Forces. They're not muscle men. They're not physical trophies. They're just normal young people who, in many instances, have very high math scores. But other than the proclivity for science and math courses, they're very much like the kid next door who just wanted a greater challenge.

How do you think the military's experience in Iraq will shape its approach to the threat posed by China? What about the approach of those who lead the military?

Because the outcome has been so horrific in Iraq in terms of drained resources, both manpower-wise and financial, I am deeply worried that the Pacific and other areas are going to get shortchanged. The American military has always had much more of a practical tradition and less of a theoretical tradition than European militaries. And with its practical mindset the American military has a steep learning curve on this whole issue of land counterinsurgency. What I'm worried about is that by the time the American military gets really good at this, we'll find that it's not much help in our new challenge. In other words, we'll become expert at something that's passed, and we'll have ignored what's coming up. That is one of the reasons I wrote this piece—it's a shot across the bow. I got a lot of people stirred up with "The Coming Anarchy," which appeared when the conventional wisdom toward Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast in the early 1990s was upbeat. I hope to stir people with this piece.