The 21st century will be Asia’s century: what happens in the East will affect the stability of the globe, says Robert D. Kaplan. He spoke with Ben Hill about the lessons to be learned from Asia’s ascent.
The European: Mr. Kaplan, in your latest book, “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific”, you stressed that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are the biggest threat to global security in the 21st century. Could you briefly explain why?
Robert Kaplan: The South China Sea, as well as the East China Sea, are both critical for global politics, because if China can eventually strategically dominate the South and East China Seas, the way the United States came to dominate the greater Caribbean at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, which allowed the United States to dominate the Western Hemisphere and affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. If China were to dominate the South and East China Seas, it would suddenly not just be a regional power, but a great power, because domination of those seas would enable its navy and air force to venture further into the Pacific, and more importantly into the Indian Ocean, which is the global energy interstate, encompassing the entire arc of Islam.
The European: Why has this story not garnered as much attention as it deserves in the Western media?
Robert Kaplan: That’s a good question. I have several ideas about that. One is that it is largely a naval-air story; it doesn’t involve civilians. Any potential combat would likely be overseas. So there’s an abstraction to the story that makes it hard to reduce it to human interest terms. Asia in general is about business, it’s about strategy, it’s about high-end military acquisitions. It’s not about low-end, dirty, unconventional land combat that engulfs large civilian populations and leads to human rights violations in which the media is so interested. It’s much less of a tactile, humanistic story than the Middle East or Africa, say.
The European: How do you think the public in the West would react to a war waged in the East over business?
Robert Kaplan: Well, first of all, we’ve had long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve had the collapse of Middle Eastern States, like Libya and Yemen, yet it is all only marginally affected financial markets. They’ve priced this instability as a drag on the markets but not much. But if you had a real military conflict in the South and East China Seas, that would rattle financial markets, because it would involve countries that have some of the world’s largest economies.
The European: You also mention how the U.S.-Chinese relationship could be healthier if a more robust “Association of South East Asian Nations” existed to counter balance the Chinese. Which of the member countries do you see as more willing to push for a stronger union and which are holding back?
Robert Kaplan: Well, it’s partly geographical, because the member countries that have long coastlines on the South China Sea like Vietnam and the Philippines want a more robust ASEAN to confront China, whereas countries that are only marginally or not all on this sea like Myanmar, Thailand, or Laos, for instance, they have much less interest in this issue, and it’s easier then for China to sort of divide and conquer and deal with them individually.
The European: At the same time, are we seeing a stronger alliance web between those countries closer to China bordering the South China Sea?
Robert Kaplan: Gradually, more and more, yes. I do. But again, it will be hard without The United States as the organizing principle.
The European: U.S. diplomatic eyes seem to be on the Caribbean right now. With the recent promise to reopen diplomatic ties with Cuba after over half a century of isolation, is The United States seeking to consolidate its influence over its home waters?
Robert Kaplan: Globalization adds an impediment to The United States’ continual dominance of its own hemisphere. Because you have tremendous Chinese and Japanese business interests throughout Latin America now that you never had decades ago. I think that by improving its relationship with Cuba it makes it easier to maintain bilateral relations with every other country in the Western Hemisphere. Because Cuba is no longer an issue when they’re at the table.
The European: The story of East Asia in the 20th century seems to be that of autocratic rulers that wielded the power to transform their countries for good or for ill. How did most of the dictators in East Asia come to strengthen their nations, especially when compared to what their counterparts have done in Central and South America, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world?
Robert Kaplan: I think that most of the dictators in Asia, Markos of the Philippines excepted, what they concentrated on was building manufacturing bases, on enlarging middle classes, so they essentially set the foundation stones for the evolution into democracy. Take Park Chung-hee in South Korea, he was the real father of South Korean stability. Without him and what he did, Korea’s successful democracy would be impossible to imagine. It’s the same with Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, or Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. It is unfair to compare these men with the suffocating totalitarian rulers in the Middle East, who built no institutions outside of their security services.
The European: What were the factors that led to produce these better autocrats: Was it the legacy of Confucianism, sheer luck, or something else?
Robert Kaplan: Well, I think the legacy of Confucianism plays a part. It’s a very subtle part: It’s impossible to quantify. But Confucianism’s emphasis on stability, on social relations, on family, on evolving better societies, but essentially respecting order, gives like a built in stability to these societies that allows for modernization.
The European: In your book you also talked about great leaders versus great systems. How does a good autocrat compare to a more nebulous communist system like we see in China, and which is a stronger, more stable means of governance?
Robert Kaplan: I think China. China for the last third of a century, during a time in which it has seen the most unprecedented economic growth in history, was governed by a group of collegial, relatively faceless, uncharismatic, technocratic authoritarians. And that has served China well. It’s also served U.S.-Chinese relations well. The Chinese system, although it’s not like ours, is essentially conservative, and therefore predictable.
The European: What about China now?
Robert Kaplan: I think China is now heading into a time when its new leader is particularly more charismatic, more nationalistic, really trying to re-centralize the regime. You know, this anti-corruption drive is really a sort of elegant version of The Great Purge. So I think that the next few decades of US-China relations will be much more difficult than the previous three.
The European: You wrote that stability in Asia is “all up to Vietnam,” and that the country plays the role of “the principle protagonist” and “political bell weather” in the region. Because they share similar structures, strengths and weaknesses, which of the two governments, of Vietnam or China, will prove to be more stable in the coming decades?
Robert Kaplan: That’s a good question. Clearly, both Vietnam and China have reached the point of economic development where their systems have to evolve, and they have to become more transparent, because, as growth rates fall, once you develop the semblance of a more developed economy and middle class, you cannot grow your GDP as fast as you did when it was at a rock bottom level. So as economic growth rates fall, the implicit compromise between the rulers and the ruled gets more tense, because the authoritarianism is accepted by the population only on the condition that life will get better. If it stops getting better by very much, then you could have real upheaval.
The European: You describe Malaysia as “a mass democracy in an age of high technology, existing at an unstable crossroads”, why do you believe this country to be one of the “most revealing on Earth”?
Robert Kaplan: Well, I think Malaysia is an amazing country. It’s got large populations of ethnic Chinese, of ethnic Indians, of ethnic indigenous Malay Muslims. It’s had its ethnic tensions -- it still has -- but it hasn’t really had ethnic violence since I think the 60s or 70s, and since that time the economy has developed. Malaysia is an easy country to travel around and a joy to be in. You know, it worked. The problem that we’ve had with those tragic air crashes, what was forgotten was that 30 years ago Malaysia wouldn’t even be in the business of having such a global airlines as it has now. Now it has to get to the level of the kind of transparency of operation, where Malaysia is being judged on a much higher standard than it used to be.
The European: What lessons can Europe learn from the religious and ethnic melting pot in South East Asia?
Robert Kaplan: Malaysia will have its share of troubles in the future, but they will be the political troubles of success rather than of failure, and I think that Malaysia is a society that has more or less succeeded at getting, not just ethnic peoples, but different world civilizations to coexist together, in a way that Europe has not.
The European: And how? Is it just the history of cohabitating a land for so long, or is there something else?
Robert Kaplan: I think it’s something basic. I think that large European states have finely tuned descendant legacies, where in France it means being French, Catholic. Germany it means German, Protestant or Catholic. It’s the kind of national identities that are so finely defined that they don’t admit outsiders, whatever European politicians might say. Remember another aspect of Malaysia is that the Indians, Chinese, and Malays have all come there decades and centuries ago, whereas Europe’s Muslim immigration is more recent overall.
The European: And at the same time, the European states have come together into something post-national: a multilateral organization and economic union. What role does the EU play in the story of national and cultural identities in Europe in the near future?
Robert Kaplan: Here’s something to keep in mind. The EU is “post-national” by definition. But also by definition, its members have very finely tuned national identities. So there is a contradiction, and the contradiction comes up whenever individual European states need to choose whether to make sacrifices for other individual European states, and the last two years have shown that they’re not willing to, or otherwise they would have dealt with the economic crisis in a far more decisive way than they have.
The European: How effectively can a post-national body exert global strength in international politics, namely regarding the current situation with Russia and Ukraine?
Robert Kaplan: If individual European countries will not make sacrifices for other individual European countries, even for those within the EU, why should they be willing to make a sacrifice for Ukraine? The truth is, Russia has much more of an appetite to destabilize Ukraine than Europe has an appetite to stabilize it, and that’s because Europe doesn’t have a foreign policy. It has a conglomeration of foreign policy tendencies of individual member states. So the only way that Europe can really have a bold and finely tuned foreign policy, is if the Germans lead, or there is a combination of very dynamic individuals at the top to drive the foreign policy. Before they left office, you had foreign ministers like Karl Bildt in Sweden and Radek Sikorski in Poland, who gave Europe more of an edgy, anti-Russian, pro-Ukrainian foreign policy, but it’s gone now.
The European: Would you say that it’s hard to rely on democracies to produce the sort of stability you need for robust policies to be carried over from term to term?
Robert Kaplan: It’s challenging for democracies, but it’s even much more challenging when you have an assemblage of many democracies. To get that assemblage, and to have a very dynamic foreign policy that is very finely defined, is extremely difficult.