China's grand strategy

May 5th, 2010  

Topic: China's grand strategy

China's grand strategy

Robert Kaplan has written an excellent, thought-provoking piece in Foreign Affairs. He argues that China's insatiable demand for energy and natural resources is driving its strategic policy, as it expands its military reach and influence both on continental as well as in maritime Asia. It is not that China has a master plan for world domination, rather, like all rising powers, (nineteenth-century America included) the logic of its growth requires it to play a greater international role.

To its west China is strengthening its grip on Xinjiang and Tibet. Soon it will complete two major pipelines extending from Central Asia to Xinjiang. In Tibet it is building roads and railroads to extract resources, pacify the restive population, and keep it out of Indian hands. China is marching southward as well, as it increases control over Burma, which may provide Beijing with a port and maritime access to the Bay of Bengal. And it is trying, as Kaplan says, to "divide and conquer" other ASEAN states, who, in response to American inattention, are beginning to team up in opposition to China's influence. According to Kaplan, Beijing's main objective on the Korean peninsula is to help North Korea develop into a more "modern authoritarian" state, so that it remains a buffer against U.S.-allied South Korea. Even so, Kaplan writes, China would not necessarily be opposed to a unified Korea that, for economic reasons, would be a part of "Greater China's" sphere, and eventually lead to the removal of American troops from South Korea.

While Kaplan's assessment of China's geostrategy sounds about right to me, it has also done its job in provoking some thoughts. I will offer three thoughts:

First, I do not agree that China can accomplish its continental consolidation through demographic efforts--populating Tibet, Xinjiang, the Russian Far East--or commercial relations alone. To do what Kaplan argues Beijing is trying--consolidate its land borders, extend its reach in Central Asia and Burma and Korea--China will also need to develop expeditionary land forces. Why? To respond to terrorist attacks, to prepare for a possible border war with India, and to advance its goals on the Korean peninsula in case of collapse and chaos in the North.

Second, Kaplan seems to endorse the "Garret plan" that is making its way around the Pentagon, a plan which, in the context of America's regional political objectives, seems wrongheaded. The basic idea is to "do away with master bases" in Japan and South Korea and instead strengthen the U.S. presence in Oceania--on Guam and the Caroline, Northern Mariana, Solomon, and Marshal islands--while at the same time vastly expanding America's naval presence in the Indian Ocean. This strategy would require Washington to upgrade defense relations with India-to use some of its outer islands-well as with Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore. The U.S. navy would still cooperate with the Japanese maritime self-defense force as well. This plan, according to Kaplan, would be less provocative to China while at the same time still allow the United States to play something more than the role of offshore balancer.


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