Robert D. Kaplan supplies a chapter on Chinese naval strategy to a Center for a New American Security report entitled China’s Arrival: A Strategic Framework for a Global Relationship. Much of the chapter is based on his previous work in Foreign Affairs and The Atlantic with a healthy dose of James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, two academics many will be familiar with. Kaplan’s primary contention is that in the long-term, China is pursuing a two-ocean strategy for its navy:
… the Chinese Navy would prefer to be not a one-ocean, but a two-ocean power, with multiple access routes between the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific to ease its dependence on the Strait of Malacca. (pp. 53-54)
Unfortunately much of the analysis is based on the Mahanian concept of physical protection of the sea lanes. This type of thinking has been criticized by naval thinkers in the West, but is considered the norm in Chinese strategic circles (see Mao Zedong, Meet Alfred Thayer Mahan: Strategic Theory and Chinese Sea Power (PDF) by Holmes and Yoshihara). Much of China’s resources pass through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean. It is to this end that China has set up its string of pearls strategy (one being Gwadar Port), contemplating a Kra Canal as well as beefing up its naval power projection capabilities into the Indian Ocean. Thus, quoting Chinese naval analyst Zhang Ming, “India is perhaps China’s most realistic strategic adversary.” Kaplan points out that 90 percent of Chinese arms sales are to Indian Ocean littoral countries, virtually surrounding India on three sides.
This all sounds very ominous but before you begin accusing Kaplan of being a war-monger realize that much of this article is about justifying China’s expansion. Kaplan stresses that “there is nothing illegitimate about the rise of the Chinese military.” and “… it is too facile to suggest that China is acquiring naval power as a means to the end of regional or perhaps global hegemony.”(pp. 46) Chinese expansion is a function of expanding trade, giving rise to economic and strategist interests overseas. Furthermore, Chinese naval expansion, argues Kaplan, is “an indication that its land borders are for the first time in ages not under threat.” (pp. 48)
Kaplan once again makes the comparison of China’s rise to that of America’s rise in the 19th century. He even makes a reference to the Indian Wars and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Reader beware, one must tread carefully when using historical metaphors and analogues. There is learning from history, and there is being blinded by history. A good book to read on this subject is Neustadt and May’s excellent Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. That said, I think Kaplan is doing something more subtle here. Rather than making an argument about the progress of a rising power, he is offering a moral argument to counter anti-Chinese sentiment in the US. Basically he is saying: hey, we went the same route and the world didn’t turn out so bad did it? For some that may seem a very egocentric argument, but remember that the entire report is directed at the American and Chinese decision makers and is titled: A Strategic Framework for a Global Relationship. Kaplan argues that China’s naval rise can present the US with opportunities for engagement (eg. the Chinese dispatch to the Gulf of Aden as an example), and we know from his previous work that Kaplan supports the military as the harbingers of diplomacy. Furthermore, Kaplan advises that rather than leveraging allies like Japan and India to isolate China, the US should leverage these relationships to bind China in an Asia-centric alliance system. A moment of institutional liberalism from the self-proclaimed pessimistic realist Kaplan?
The rest of the report is written by name-brand academics such as John Ikenberry, Michael Green and Richard Weitz. Often Kaplan is criticized for writing in academic settings. The situation is no different here as he makes a number of claims without sufficient evidence. At least this time he uses endnotes (a whole 16 of them!). Since this is really a think piece, an exploration of a potential naval strategy from a decidedly American point of view, it might not require such adherence to the rigour of the academy. Unless you are a professional academic working on SLOC issues or are familiar with Holmes and Yoshihara’s work, this article is probably worth the read.
h/t to Lex who passed this on oh so long ago!