Kaplan in Tokyo Report, Part 1: Speech

What follows is a description of my experience, in fanboyish detail, of Robert Kaplan’s speech at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation on March 12, 2010. I was lucky enough to sit and chat with Mr Kaplan for more than a half hour after the event, at an exclusive reception. I will describe that in my next post. Today I would like to fill you in on the speech itself, and provide you with my notes which I think will give you insight into his new book Monsoon, due later this year. Also, Kaplan will be publishing an article about Chinese geography in the next issue of Foreign Affairs, a topic he broached a bit in the speech.

Kaplan at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation

First, let me describe the setting. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation is part of one of the most conservative thinktanks in Japan. I am familiar with them from my thesis research. Nevertheless, they seem to have some interesting speakers. Robert Kagan will be speaking there at the end of the month. I did not get a peek at the guest list, so I cannot guess as to the politics of those present. One questioner identified himself as from the Okazaki Institute. During the reception I was approached by a reporter from the Asahi Shinbun, a traditionally liberal paper, and chatted with a DPJ member of the House of Representatives. In other words, it wasn’t a uniformly conservative audience. Also, there seemed to be a lot of foreign embassy staff. About a quarter to a third of the audience were non-Japanese. Many were south and south-east Asian. A representative from the Chinese embassy stood up and asked Kaplan a question (more on that later).

I arrived on the scene later than I should have, and was seated halfway behind a pillar, with barely a view of Kaplan himself. The stage was set up in the large first floor lobby of the Nippon Foundation building. There were about 70 people arranged in a horseshoe, with intermittent pillars. The acoustics were not the greatest. At the back of the room was an enclosed booth where simultaneous translation was being broadcast to radio earpieces offered at the entrance of the building. Copies of Kaplan’s Foreign Affairs article from last year Center Stage for the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean, were also provided for all attendees in both English and Japanese.

Kaplan entered a few minutes after 6. He seemed a bit more stooped than last time I saw him, nearly 5 years ago, but still in good health. You wouldn’t think he is nearly 60 years old. After some initial words from the organizers and moderator, Kaplan took the lectern and spoke for just over one hour. The lecture was delivered in that evenly paced manner he always uses, often broken with an aside, or related point. He barely stopped to breathe, and I don’t think he even took a sip of water the whole time. Kaplan always seems to have so much more to say than what time allows. I guess that’s what makes such a prolific writer. After a short break, he sat at a table and answered questions for another half hour. Once he was finished, many people approached him, myself included.

As with last time we met, he was very gracious. He thanked me profusely for our efforts on the web, and signed my copy of Hog Pilots (my review here).

Hog Pilots signed by Kaplan
“Thanks so much for your great website and all your support over the years – Robert Kaplan”

He motioned to his assistant and invited me to attend the reception, a private function held later at a different venue. The assistant came up to me and right away asked if I was the one that writes the blog. She told me that Kaplan had told her a rep from the blog might arrive. Maybe he read my post from last week? Flattering! Once I knew I would have a chance to talk to him over some wine later, I made way for others who were clambering for his attention. They didn’t have long, for Kaplan was whisked away for a private pow-wow with a handful of journalists. We met up again, across the street at the reception, which I will cover in my next post.

I asked the SPF people if they would publish the speech as a podcast. They said they wouldn’t, so I have included my notes from the lecture for your reference. Disclaimer: they may be a bit obscure. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification in the comments. I will do my best to answer.


  • trying to get beyond the US obsession with wars in the greater Middle East
  • Afghan/Iraq wars to fast-forward the “Asian Century”
  • great militaries come from economically vibrant countries
  • while US in Afghan/Iraq and Europe in otherplaces
    • China, Japan, S.Korea, India have been evolving
  • there is an arms competition in Asia
    • Golden Age of Balance-of-Power politics
  • Mackinder: “All balance, all free.”
  • from late 1970s big changes in the Asian militaries
    • from unsophisticated forces to full-fledged modern organizations
    • from INWARD focus to OUTWARD focus
  • therefore Asia is becoming closed in, claustrophobic
  • military power is moving from Europe to Asia
  • entering the Asian military century
  • US Navy shifting from a 2 ocean strategy (Atlantic, Pacific) to a 2 ocean strategy (Indian, Pacific)
  • navigable “Rimland” (from Horn of Africa → Sea of Japan) is new hot area
  • USMC also making this shift (as of 2008)

About the Indian Ocean

  • covers arc of Islam
  • culturally united region
  • Cold War era Area Studies divisions of Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia etc are actually not that different
  • there has been lots of interaction between them (eg. Arab communities in China in the 9th C.)
  • Why so united? Predictable monsoon winds let them travel the 4000 miles back and forth
  • Indian Ocean is a “small intimate sea in cultural terms”
  • Islam spread with seafaring trade
  • but Asian Islam is different
  • anywho, we are going back to this classical supra-region
  • the CW era Area Studies divisions will become less relevant

Conflict between India and China

  • India is expanding horizontally (to east and west) while China is expanding vertically (southwards)
  • China is active in Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka
  • this is not a “string of pearls” (at least not now)
  • Chinese are enthralled by Cheng Ho. They are saying:
    • “Indian ocean is part of out sphere”
    • “our power is subtle and benevolent”
    • Cheng Ho didn’t conquer any territory (brought trade, did the hajj)
  • Implicit alliances and port access rather than explicit alliances. China’s goal is access
  • at the same time in India you see the rise of Neo-Curzonians [see this shoutout to Curzon posted last year]
  • Curzon expounded a vision of a Greater India (incl. Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan etc.)
  • Indian and Chinese spheres overlap: this will be the great competition of 21st C.
  • Indian navy has expansive presence: feeling of optimism
  • PROBLEM: Indian army officers wholly different
    • obsessed by Nepal, Pak, refugees
    • surrounded by semi-failed states
    • cannot become a GREAT POWER because of border problems
  • China has secured its land borders: going to sea is a luxury
  • small island nations go to sea as a matter of course, great continental states OTO luxury
  • But Chinese seafaring is problematic: boxed in by US allies
  • Chinese Navy needs to break out of this “straitjacket”
  • But not head-to-head
  • develop niche capabilities: subs, mines, OTH radar, cyberwarfare
    • disuasion, denial of access
  • China does not seek to go to war with the US, now or ever
  • eventually want to incorporate the 1st island chain
  • but at the same time, it relies on US for open SLOCs
  • Indian Ocean: “Global Energy Interstate”
  • want to diversify from Malacca
  • two choices:
    1. ports along Indian ocean littoral (Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh)
    2. Kra Isthmus canal (“Japanese might also be into this some day”)

Let me talk about Sri Lanka

  • indicator of new geopolitics
  • in a sense “China won” the civil war
  • Western powers stopped military aid
  • China stepped into the gap, defended SL at the UNSC, gave arms, fighter jets, etc
  • at the same time China started building port in the south Hambantota
  • China will probably never have a fully operational naval base in SL (too provocative to India)

New Great Game

  • Spykman in 1943, Mackinder before, now 2010 and it seems similar
  • no apparent dominant power in Rimland
  • a new balancing game
  • a economic system from Japan to Horn of Africa
  • like in the old days
  • hopefully a peaceful era BUT
  • multipolar = unstable (references Mearsheimer’s Great Power Politics)
  • US Navy has downgraded, but still dominant, however less dominant
  • think it is a great era of opportunity for the US
  • as an extra-territorial power, US could be a linchpin


  • talked about military and trade, but not about environmental disaster
  • seeing the militarization of relief aid [talked about here too]
  • we want more freer, liberal societies. But young ones are fragile and unstable.
  • NKorea could be “mother of all humanitarian interventions”


The notes below are on just the few questions I found interesting. — YH

  • How do you get information on China, considering language barrier? Kaplan said he reads translations (many done by Naval War College) of works from Chinese thinktanks. Concedes point on language barrier.
  • When asked about China’s intentions (by an Okazaki Institute guy) Kaplan said he follows advice that he learned from the military: Don’t concern yourself with motives, follow capabilities.
  • What will happen with Diego Garcia in 2016? Kaplan says lease is likely to be renewed, but hard to predict domestic UK politics.
  • Any people thinking like this in Obama admin? CNAS people in the Obama admin, but like all modern governments, they are too busy going from crisis to crisis. 14 hour days make it too difficult to just think. That is why guys like Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were so amazing.
  • On Afghanistan: if US is successful in Afghanistan, it will be to the advantage of China, since it will mean that Pakistan will have been stabilized Pakistan to allow for more Chinese road-building, energy traffic, etc.


About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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19 Responses to Kaplan in Tokyo Report, Part 1: Speech

  1. Chirol says:

    I’m naturally quite jealous! Looking forward to the next post on this.

  2. Excellent effort, and a very interesting post.

  3. Grendel says:

    Enjoyed the reading, I’m curious for part II

    About “China is expanding vertically”, I was under the impression China expands in every direction except East.

  4. Reading your notes again – it’s interesting that Kaplan now considers that “China does not seek to go to war with the US, now or ever”.

    I haven’t followed Kaplan’s writings closely over the last couple of years, so I’m not sure about the evolution of his thinking, but this seems like a complete about turn on previously expressed views, e.g., in his June 2005 article in the Atlantic, “How we would fight China”.

  5. Younghusband says:

    Good eye!

    Stay tuned for Part 2, when I ask him about that.

  6. T. Greer says:

    “Mackinder: “All balance, all free.”

    Could you explain the meaning of this statement for me?

  7. Younghusband says:

    I think he was paraphrasing Mackinder. A major theme of the talk was Balance of Power. I think it can be related to one of his closing remarks about multipolar systems being inherently unstable. At perfect balance, things can go fine. Once the balance is broken, then all hell breaks loose.

  8. Carl says:

    Which question was asked by the rep from the PRC embassy? The first one about China info and language barrier problems?

  9. Curzon says:

    Awesome post, and delighted that he is keeping us in mind.

    Kaplan in 2005: http://cominganarchy.com/2005/04/04/kaplan-on-cominganarchycom/

    INTERVIEWER: This book, The Coming Anarchy, published in 2000, did you know that there is a website based on this book?

    KAPLAN: I didn’t know. . .

  10. Aceface says:

    “The Sasakawa Peace Foundation is part of one of the most conservative thinktanks in Japan. ”

    I don’t really find SPF that convervative compare to it’s sister organization Nippon Foundation nor Okazaki Insititute,but then this is just me.

  11. Pingback: ComingAnarchy.com » Kaplan in Tokyo Report, Part 2: Reception

  12. Younghusband says:

    @Carl: The PRC guy asked Kaplan to clarify that Hambantota was not a naval facility, something Kaplan gladly did, since it is his position that China could never go that far with India just next door.

    @Aceface: That is why I said “part of” since it is under the Nippon Foundation organization. Before going I was unsure of the politics of the SPF, and wondering what it would be like. Was going to be some sort of ultranationalist pow-wow? In the end it didn’t really turn out that way, but I didn’t have much time to have a look around at their materials. Though the SPF is located inside the Nippon Foundation building, I don’t know how much influence they have.

  13. Carl says:

    @Younghusband: I was originally surprised when you mentioned a Chinese rep asked a question. That seems very un-Chinese. Now seeing that he simply was clarifying a point Kaplan made makes more sense.

    God forbid anyone at the lecture left thinking China wanted a navy base in Sri Lanka!

  14. Quentin Todd says:

    This is very interesting. I have had a gut feeling for about a year now that the Indian Ocean will be a hotbed of politics for the next decade.

    Quote: at the same time China started building port in the south Hambantota… Unquote. Yes this is why there is a vertical problem brewing (China and India) however, I am not convinced that there will be antagonism between the two. China needs the Indian Ocean as corridor.

  15. IJ says:

    Kissinger and Brzezinski?

    Kissinger noted in ‘Diplomacy’ that attempts at multilateralism [the League of Nations, and the United Nations system] contain the fundamental weakness – no enforcement mechanism. Therefore empires are likely to continue until this is successfully addressed.

    The western empire should be NATO – not just a United States-led coalition of the willing – suggested Brzezinski recently. But agreement on operations becomes more difficult the bigger the grouping. NATO members row at present on what constitutes a threat to the alliance, secondly on how to deal with an agreed threat, and thirdly and most importantly who’ll pay for the enforcement action. The Chilcot inquiry in Britain is adding some light.

    In fact some may consider the terminal threats to their economies the alliance’s highest priority.

  16. IJ says:

    In fact some [members of NATO] may consider the terminal threats to their economies the alliance’s highest priority.

    Article 2 of the NATO treaty – the so-called Canadian Article – reads: “[The Parties] will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.”

  17. Younghusband says:

    @Quentin: it is exactly because China needs the Indian Ocean that will cause “antagonism” between China and India. We must be clear on what we mean by “antagonism”. It does not mean outright conflict. Kaplan sees it as a Great Game-like interaction — you said “hotbed of politics” — rather than anything kinetic. The pessimistic realist in him worries about the day balance cannot be acheived.

  18. IJ says:

    In connection with Article 2, NATO will be taking note of a comment in today’s Telegraph.

    “Barack Obama has never exalted free trade. This orthodoxy is, in any case, under threat in the West. His top economic adviser Larry Summers let drop in Davos that free-trade arguments no longer hold when dealing with “mercantilist” powers. Adam Smith recognized this too, despite efforts by free-trade ultras to appropriate him for their cause.”

  19. IJ says:

    Brzezinski is said to be the Henry Kissinger of the Democratic party.

    Back to Article 2 of the NATO treaty. This requires members of the alliance firstly to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies. Eurozone and NATO members France and Germany are showing us how difficult this will be. France is effectively asking Germany to become less competitive.

    See France’s finance minister criticizes Berlin policy.

    Germany’s trade surpluses built on holding down labor costs may be unsustainable for the other countries in the eurozone, France’s finance minister said in an unusually blunt warning to Berlin.

    Christine Lagarde said Berlin should consider boosting domestic demand to help deficit countries regain competitiveness and sort out their public finances.

    Her comments break a long-standing taboo between the French and German governments about macroeconomic imbalances inside the 16-country bloc which have been dramatically exposed by the Greek debt crisis.