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America Must Prepare for the Coming Chinese Empire

Author: Robert D. Kaplan

Affiliation: The Center for a New American Security (CNAS), The Atlantic.

Organization/Publisher: The National Interest 

Date/Place: June 17, 2019/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 5642


Keywords: The U.S.-China Rivalry, The US Grand Strategy, The New Indian Ocean Empire, Geography, and Empire


Based on his academic background in Geopolitics and his professional experience as a correspondent who has spent many years touring many parts of the world, especially China, Kaplan is trying here to formulate a grand strategy for the U.S. commensurate with the features of the new world we live in today; and that is after he identifies the major features of this world that have not yet been liberated from the imperial age traits, as claimed by postcolonial theories. The author argues that the term superpower is only a synonym for the term empire that Americans are ashamed to use, that the U.S. has been truly empire since the end of the Second World War until the beginning of the twenty-first century, as long as it has enjoyed the permanence of visible influence across the world—the essence of an empire. However, since the early of the twenty-first century, this empire has witnessed a decline in its economic and moral commitments in the first place, as its allies became skeptical about the credibility of its word at a time when other empires began gradually to take their places. Kaplan focuses here mainly on China as the coming power that the U.S. must prepare soundly. He believes that “China is not the challenge we face, but we are facing the new Chinese empire” which extends from the heart of the Han ethnicity through Central Asia to Iran, and from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal to the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea, it is an empire centered on roads, railways, energy pipelines, container ports and seas lines, whose land and sea paths are similar to those of the ancient Chinese dynasties in the middle ages. China is building the greatest land-sea power in history, the Indian Ocean is at the heart of this new empire, therefore he calls it “the new Indian Ocean empire.” Kaplan attaches the highest importance to the geography factor. Given that the Indian Ocean is connected to the South China Sea through the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok, the Chinese hegemony on the South China Sea is very crucial, as this sea not only opens the Indian Ocean to China but also reduces the importance of Taiwan and gives the Chinese navy greater access to the wider Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the world, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa represent the Western borders of this new Chinese empire. The characteristics of the political culture of this region are very compatible with Chinese policy, as the peoples of this region do not yearn for liberal democracy as much as they yearn for dignity and justice; it as if it is a world specially designed for the Chinese who do not give moral and missionary lectures on the most appropriate patterns of governance for nations, as Americans have been doing for decades. Also, Kaplan devotes here a long section in which he talks about the characteristics of the ancient, hierarchical and coherent Chinese culture that makes all the Chinese move according to a pattern consistent with the great goals of this empire, comparing this traditional culture with the American and Western culture that revolves around the dismantling of power for the benefit of individualism. Although China has serious domestic problems that may undermine its foreign projects, the U.S. strategists and decision-makers should never assume that somehow Americans are superior to the Chinese. In another part of the study, Kaplan details the nature of the U.S.-China rivalry, which domains will be cyber battlefields and space wars, in which war will increasingly become more mental and less physical. Also, culture and national pride will be more stimulating factors than before. Moreover, the author compares the discreet, dynamic strategic thinking of the current Chinese leadership and the charismatic personality of its disciplined leader against the floundering and declining US and Western leadership in general since the end of the Cold War. After that, Kaplan devotes the last part of the study to outlining the grand strategy that the U.S. should adopt to be eligible to wage and win this decisive struggle. The first step is the necessity to abandon the policy of promoting democracy across the world and be more flexible to accommodate the priorities and needs of other peoples within their local political cultures. One of the priorities must also be an effective exit from the Middle East. Every day that U.S. forces spend there would help China more in the Indo-Pacific region and even in Europe. Kaplan argues that the American presence in Afghanistan and the Middle East will never contribute to any fruitful progress due to the control of internal, cultural and ethnic factors on the fate of these regions. Of course, the Chinese hope that Washington will remain involved there, as this would facilitate China’s path towards global supremacy. Kaplan believes that Taiwan and India are more important to the U.S. than Syria and Afghanistan for sound geopolitical reasons, as the implicit alliance between India and the U.S. would contribute to containing the rising power of China in the Indian Ocean, just as Taiwan was for decades a sign of China’s weakness or willingness to control the South China Sea, dominate the eastern hemisphere, or ability to push the U.S. out of the region. Furthermore, Kaplan calls the U.S. to avoid engaging in direct violent wars with China and maintain long-term competition in which the U.S. naval power has the most prominent role in containing China along the southern edge of Eurasia (Rimland). This strategy will always provide the U.S. a chance to recover and revitalize its democracy at home. The essence of the grand strategy is not only about what “we should do abroad, but also on what we should do abroad in line with our economic and social situation at home.” Finally, Kaplan argues that the blessings of geography enjoyed by the U.S. have always enabled it to endure disaster after disaster without paying a commensurate price, but as technology shrinks geographical distances, the U.S. will become in a real state of weakness unable to sustain more heroic imperial delusions. So the U.S. should prepare well for the coming Chinese empire by building a grand and effective strategy. 

[Editors Note: Although Robert Kaplan wrote this article last year, his point that technology shrinks geographical distances and brings the US into an unstable world has been made acutely relevant as global travel has brought the Coronavirus to the US, which geography was unable to protect it, and whose leadership has proven incompetent to contain it. As the US continues to struggle with the global pandemic, China has meanwhile been offering assistance to many nations and is exerting itself as a global leader in spite of any future economic hardship.]

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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