Essays & Reviews

Robert Kaplan on the Geopolitical Classics and Contemporary China

In Foreign Affairs, Robert Kaplan continues his recent geopolitical-focused analysis, this time on the future of China.   Kaplan points out that Halford J. Mackinder ended his famous 1904 article, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” with a reference to China. After explaining why Eurasia was the geostrategic fulcrum of world power, Mackinder posited that the Chinese, should they expand their power well beyond their borders, “might constitute the yellow peril to the world’s freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent, an advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region.” Kaplan argues that Mackinder, then-fashionable racism aside, had a point:  whereas Russia, that other Eurasian giant, basically was, and is still, a land power with an oceanic front blocked by ice, China, owing to a 9,000-mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, is both a land power and a sea power. (Mackinder actually feared that China might one day conquer Russia.) China’s virtual reach extends from Central Asia, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean.

Later, in Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder predicted that along with the United States and the United Kingdom, China would eventually guide the world by “building for a quarter of humanity a new civilization, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western.”As the example of the Korean Peninsula shows, China’s land borders beckon with more opportunities than hazards.  In Kaplan’s view, as Mackinder suggested, China seems to be developing as a great land and sea power that will at the very least overshadow Russia in Eurasia.


Kaplan’s summarizes his own position as follows:  China’s geography means that China will stand at the hub of geopolitics even if the country’s path toward global power is not necessarily linear.  China does not take a missionary approach to world affairs, seeking to spread an ideology or a system of government; China’s actions abroad are propelled by its need to secure energy, metals, and strategic minerals in order to support the rising living standards of its immense population.  What drives China abroad has to do with a core national interest — economic survival — and so China can be defined as an über-realist power. It seeks to develop a sturdy presence throughout the parts of Africa that are well endowed with oil and minerals and wants to secure port access throughout the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, which connect the hydrocarbon-rich Arab-Persian world to the Chinese seaboard.


Kaplan also draws on the perspectives of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas Spykman.  In thinking in zero-sum fashion about their country’s adjoining seas, China’s naval leaders are displaying the aggressive philosophy of Mahan, who argued for sea control and the decisive battle. But they do not yet have the blue-water force to apply it, and this discrepancy between aspirations and means has led to some awkward incidents over the past few years.  Still an insecure sea power, China thinks about the ocean territorially: the very terms “first island chain” and “second island chain” (the second island chain includes the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands) suggest that the Chinese see all these islands as archipelagic extensions of the Chinese landmass.


Kaplan also cites Spykman’s view that throughout history, states have engaged in “circumferential and transmarine expansion” to gain control of adjacent seas. Greece sought control over the Aegean, Rome over the Mediterranean, the United States over the Caribbean–and now China over the South China Sea. Spykman called the Caribbean “the American Mediterranean” to underscore its importance to the United States. The South China Sea may become “the Asian Mediterranean” and the heart of political geography in coming decades.  The South China Sea is China’s gateway to the Indian Ocean and to the world’s hydrocarbon transport route. The challenges of piracy, radical Islam, and the rise of India’s navy reside all along the way, including near the bottlenecks through which a large proportion of China’s oil tankers and merchant ships must pass. In terms of overall strategic significance, the South China Sea could become, as some have said, a “second Persian Gulf.”


Kaplan believes that the proper American response is to work to preserve stability in Asia, protect its allies there, and limit the emergence of a Greater China while avoiding a conflict with Beijing.   He believes that offshore balancing may not be sufficient and concludes that British naval historian Sir Julian Corbett’s notion of “fleet in being” may have relevance.  Corbett referred to a dispersed collection of ships that could quickly coalesce into a unified fleet if necessary.  Kaplan cites the contemporary work of retired U.S. Marine Colonel Pat Garrett, in which the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force could take advantage of Oceania’s geography to constitute a “regional presence in being” located “just over the horizon” from the informal borders of a Greater China and the main shipping lanes of Eurasia.  “Just over the horizon” reflects a confluence of offshore balancing and participation in a concert of powers.