Promoting the ‘China Threat’ Subtly – Robert D. Kaplan and Geostrategic Motivation

Red flags went up as soon as I began reading the new Foreign Affairs piece by Robert D. Kaplan entitled, “The Geography of Chinese Power: How Far Can Beijing Reach on Land and at Sea?” (You can find the piece in May/June 2010 journal issue but it is not yet available on their website:   There in the first sentence is a reference to Sir Halford Mackinder – the great geostrategic thinker of the early 20th century – don’t worry Alfred Thayer Mahan is referenced later not to mention the well known contemporary ‘offensive realist,’ John Mearsheimer – a good colleague and friend but an ‘over-the-top’ realist (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics) from the University of Chicago that is a favorite of realists in the academy and the policy circuit.  This Kaplan piece would appear to be the lead in to his newest publication – Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.  And in the piece and presumably in the book there is an extended discussion of the rising China threat. 

So, why the strong reaction by - yours truly.  Well, because the frequent referencing to the imperialist world – and indeed in the China case its long dynastic history – identifies a global political context that may have little to do with the current reality of international politics.  Yet here’s Kaplan suggesting that China today is a combination of extreme, Western-style modernity with – a little hard to believe – a “hydraulic civilization” perspective – an earlier interpretation of China as a centralized state power where government provides irrigation throughout the land. 

For Kaplan – and others – See Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order – geography is politics.  So Kaplan argues, “China’s internal dynamism creates external ambitions.  “Empires rarely come by design”, says Kaplan; “they grow organically.”  New stronger states cultivate new needs that lead – through apprehension - to expansion. This was true for the US in the past and it is true today for China because, says Kaplan, of its resource needs – energy, metals and strategic minerals. As a result China in Kaplan’s view is not just a realist state but an  “uber-realist state.”  The motivation is clear in this Kaplan piece – just dramatically untested.  Yet Kaplan unquestioningly relies on the motivation to spin out a tale of expansion, presumptive expansion and designs of control and influence. 

But the other aspect of this piece really gets me going.  Kaplan is more subtle than just committing to geography.  He uses unsubtle language within a subtle context.  So while Kaplan recognizes that, as he says, “The chance of a war between China and the United States is remote; …” he then builds a world of Chinese aggressiveness and expanding military capability and influence that is built on rivalry and competition at least in East and South Asia and classic balance of power politics.  There is no acknowledgement of an alternative – a more collaborative great power politics in an age of globalization including deep economic integration including the rising powers like China.  This is the “Great Game” in 21st century globalization garb. 

For China it’s expansion – and the assertion of control over western China – Xinjiang and Tibet - is all about resources.  And it is; but not only.  It is also built on a complicated history of the Party and the assertion of Chinese nationalism at the conclusion of the civil war and the creation of the People’s Republic of China.  And, autonomy for Tibet and its people is not just about Tibet as Tibetans are also significant populations in a number of bordering provinces not only Tibet but also Gansu and Qinghai – as has recently been shown in the earthquake relief in Qinghai.  And the subtle use of unsubtle language continues throughout this analysis of heartland and then extending out “greater China.” So, Kaplan suggests that China is, “poised to conquer Mongolia again,” – the unsubtle language – but then frames it subtly by saying,  “… after a fashion, in order to satisfy its hunger for the country’s oil, coal, uranium, and rich, empty grasslands.”   This back and forth continues through the latter part of the article as Kaplan describes China’s new aggressiveness in Asia and the challenge China poses to the “declining” United States.  As Kaplan sums it up:

Still, the very fact of China’s rising economic and military power will exacerbate US-Chinese tensions in the years ahead.  To paraphrase Mearsheimer, the United States, the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, will try to prevent China from becoming the hegemon of much of the Eastern Hemisphere.  This could be signal drama of the age.

The China-US relationship is likely to be the key bilateral relationship for the next decade or more.  It just not likely to be the relationship described by Kaplan unless he and others convince policy makers that the ‘China Threat’ is the only way to conceptualize the relationship.  It is not!

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