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Stratfor’s Robert Kaplan On Asia’s Cauldron

Sunday, April 6, 2014

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HH: On Monday, I had George Will on, and I told all of you I spent last week on the Weekly Standard cruise reading George Will’s new book on Wrigley Field, but that was only half of what I read. For the serious, tough stuff, although it is a riveting book, I took along Robert Kaplan’s brand new book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea And The End Of A Stable Pacific. And in fact, in one of my lectures to the Weekly Standard cruise, it was all about Asia’s Cauldron. And I’m pleased to welcome to the program now Robert Kaplan. Welcome back, Robert, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

RK: Thanks so much for having me as usual.

HH: Well, I’ve got to say I led off my lecture by telling people these five points, so I’m going to lead off our conversation with this from your book. “China is outbuilding us in subs four to one right now, soon to be eight to one. Asia’s arms race may be one of the most underreported stories in the elite media in decades. If China keeps on building at its current pace, it will have nine carriers in the Western Pacific by 2050. They want to go from sea denial to sea control navy,” and quote on from Page 38, “China isn’t so much building a conventional navy as an anti-navy navy designed to push U.S. sea and air forces away from the East Asia coastline.” This is just breathtaking stuff, Robert. What’s the reaction to the book?

RK: The reaction is this, Hugh. Among people who follow these things, which is this centrist, realist, think tank community more or less, and all the Asia specialists, and remember, Asia specialists compared to Middle East and other specialists tend to be more centrist realists. It goes with the turf. They are not surprised, but they are very pleased that it’s all been brought together in a relatively short, brisk book so that it’s just all there and easily digestible for the reader. As for people outside, they don’t, they’re not very much interested. Nobody wants to focus about this part of Asia, this aspect of Asia, except for the people who have already been covering it, like all the naval experts and all the others.

HH: You know, one of my colleagues on the cruise, and I’ll leave him nameless, because I don’t know if he wanted to be quoted, he said that sounds like 1914 in Europe, this arms race. And as you catalogue in Asia’s Cauldron, little Singapore, little Taiwan, big Vietnam, big Indonesia, everyone’s arming to the teeth, and I didn’t even mention Japan.

RK: Yes. It’s not so much like 1914 as it is like the U.S. trying to gain control of the Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th Century. The difference between Europe and Asia, as you read in the book, is Europe was a landscape. Asia is a seascape.

HH: Right.

RK: Europe was about modern weaponry, trench warfare, mustard gas, that kind of stuff. And that led to a war that went on for four long years which therefore became a culture and history-transforming event. World War One did not change the 20th Century in 1914. It did so around 1916 when there was no end in sight and millions had already been killed. Any possible conflict in Asia will probably be short and sharp, and will not involve civilians, because the fighting will take place in air, sea, cyber and over open water. Keep in mind that Asia is a rebuke to all those people who say that the 21st Century is going to be one of geoeconomics, not geopolitics, that we’re going to leave fights for territory behind. The Middle East? Well, that’s always been unstable. That’s always been a problem. But Asia is a rebuke to that, because Asia is wealthy, it’s stable, it’s postmodern with lovely airports and just, you know, lovely new skyscrapers, and yet all these countries are arming to the teeth, and they are fighting not about ideas, not about politics, not about economics, even, but about territory.

HH: I’ll tell people they will fall into Asia’s Cauldron and they won’t get out, because it’s really, actually, kind of thrilling to watch because of the way you develop the book. But I want to stress in our first segment about China as well, that the PRC’s Defense budget has increased by double digits nearly every year since 1988, you write, leading to an 800% swell over 20 years. They hiked it 12% to $100 billion last year, they just announced last week, another 12% this year. They are rising, we are falling. They are a regional power. We are a global power. And so Robert Kaplan, when you hear people say oh, but the United States spends more than the next five countries combined, they really don’t get that regional versus world spread problem.

RK: Right, yeah, what they don’t get is China doesn’t need to worry about the world. China’s military doesn’t care about Europe or about Sough America. China’s military just has to be concerned with the Western Pacific. And if it does its job right in the Western Pacific, it’ll gain substantial access to the adjacent Indian Ocean. So it’s a one ocean navy, and potentially it can become a two ocean navy, whereas the U.S. Navy and Air Force has to essentially provide coverage for the whole planet.

HH: Now last year, I spent three weeks with the president at Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn, talking about the Peloponnesian War, so I am pleased to see the Melian Dialogue come up both at the beginning and at the end of your book. So to put this in the great sweep of history, is China Sparta here trying to become Athens, and with Athens, us just slowly giving up the game?

RK: Well actually, glad you’re mentioning it. It’s a bit simplistic, though, because Sparta’s regime lasted many hundreds of years, and it was a mixed regime, and that’s why the founding fathers were not so negative about Sparta. They learned from Sparta as well as Athens. And Athens, remember, was a maritime empire.

HH: Yup.

RK: And you know, the fact that Athens is an empire is more important than the fact that Athens was a democracy when you think in terms of geopolitics. I think what China is emerging as is a mixed regime of sort of enlightened authoritarianism that pursues the path of economic reforms which gives people more personal freedoms, if not political freedoms, and that the big question of China, I can simplify. If China’s economy does not collapse, and it might collapse, but it probably won’t, it’ll probably just go through substantial heartaches for a number of years. But provided China’s economy does not collapse, the direction China is going, and the direction we’re going, means that there’s going to be, that the distance between China’s air, sea and cyber forces, and our own in the Western Pacific, will get narrower and narrower.

HH: Robert Kaplan is my guest. His new book, Asia’s Cauldron is linked over at He’ll be with me for the full hour. I must say here’s the challenging part of your book, Robert, among the many informative parts. You basically argue that China wants to assert, in essence, its own Monroe Doctrine over the South China Sea as America did over our hemisphere, and morally, we are hard-pressed to find an answer to that, because…

RK: That’s true, yes.

HH: They’re just doing what we did.

RK: Yeah, and the Chinese say this. First of all, the Monroe Doctrine was more nuanced than people think. It wasn’t about kicking out the Europeans, because the Europeans had already substantially left by that point. It was about not letting them back in, but it was also about cooperating with the British Navy against the slave trade. It was about moving closer to Europe diplomatically in Europe itself. And to do that, America had to set its portfolio straight in the Caribbean. So it was complex, and this is what China’s trying to do now. It’s trying to slowly displace us in the Western Pacific without ever having to fight us, because they know they would lose us in any, lose to us in any fleet on fleet battle. They want to slowly displace us, yet in other realms, in other issues, they want to cooperate with us in order to stabilize the relationship, and at the same time, allowing them a sort of dominant correlation of forces in the Western Pacific that leads them to become a great power in the Indian Ocean as well.

HH: That’s the best way to read it. When Dr. Kissinger was my guest a year and a half ago when On China came out, and we spent an hour like you and I are spending…

RK: Yes.

HH: I ended up talking with him about his last chapter, in which he says look, there are two parties in Beijing. There’s the party that you just described, and then there are the tigers…

RK: Yeah.

HH: Those who wish to have the sudden, sharp confrontation as you mentioned, a sudden, sharp battle that really wouldn’t hurt a lot of civilians. But are you worried that as he suggested the tigers might be ascendant?

RK: Look, here’s how I would put it, is China goes through more and more economic turmoil, which it will, that’s a given, that’s going to mean social turmoil. And that’s going to mean Chinese leaders are going to be more apt to dial up nationalism as an escape valve. And nationalism means more of an aggressive posture in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea, because we’ve had it good with China for several decades. We’ve had predictable, conservative, non-charismatic, collegial authoritarians who don’t like crises. But as China changes, the style of leadership may change. We may get more of a charismatic nationalist type of leadership. Xi Jinping may emerge like that. It’s too early to tell, but he might. So the next few decades in dealing with China are going to be more challenging than the past few decades.

— – - – -

HH: Robert, I began today’s show talking with Marco Rubio about our fleet, and he wants 12 or 13 carriers. And I pointed out to him, I quoted your book to him, China’s on a path to 9 carriers. And do you see them ever backing off from this anti-navy navy, and…

RK: No, I don’t. Here’s the difficulty that China will have. First of all, they’re just building their first, perhaps their second carrier. Once you have a carrier, a carrier is useless without a carrier strike group, which are destroyers, frigates and perhaps one submarine to go along with it. That takes tremendous coordination between ships’ crews as well as tremendous training for crews on each individual ship. If you, I’ve been embedded on both destroyers and submarines for long periods of time. And the amount of expertise and coordination required to run one of those things with 330 young people on a destroyer, 185 on an attack sub, it’s like a symphony orchestra. To cut to the chase, it’s going to take China a generation to train a navy to actually use carriers in an effective way. So it’s you can buy things, you can acquire platforms with money, but it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use them. The U.S. Navy, of course has, you could say, generations of training, and they’re the most magnificent sailors in the world. But China can catch up, and certainly it’s, what it shows more than anything else is determination. They are determined to do this.

HH: You point out they’re also developing a vast array of weapons, such as these little corvettes that are designed to push us back. And I don’t think Americans are fully up to speed on that.

RK: Yeah. Yes, Americans and Congress and the Executive Branch don’t understand, think of a navy as just gray-hulled warships. That’s not true. The Chinese version of a navy is everything from a small fishing boat to a nuclear ballistic missile submarine. You know, swarms of small fishing boats where fishermen who are civilians make claims to rocks in the sea, which brings in the military. Beyond the fishing boats, they’re still not gray-hulled warships. They’re coast guard cutters. China makes strategic use of its coast guard cutters in pressing, you know, in bullying the Philippines and other countries, because they know that what they do with a coast guard vessel, the U.S. can never respond to, because we don’t have coast guards in the Western Pacific.

HH: Right.

RK: And so we can’t, and you can’t respond to a coast guard, a coast guard provocation with a navy provocation. That’s considered too warlike in the international domain. So they make strategic use of coast guards and merchant shipping in a way that we never can, because they’re an authoritarian country. They can use their civilian vessels for military purposes.

HH: Now I want to switch to the sort of the back of the book. You refer to Taiwan as “A stubborn, inconvenient fact,” on Page 142, and you write on Page 157 about the lessons, and how travel involves surprises, meaning Chiang Kai-Shek. Reading about travel when you’re stuck in a studio involves surprises. I’ve never actually had a desire to go to Taiwan until I read this book. And now I want to go, because you describe a fascinating culture that is also caught in an historically-unprecedented vise.

RK: Yes. Taiwan is, as I said, a stubborn, inconvenient fact, because it’s a stable, prosperous democracy that does not want to be part of China, yet China has been able to coerce the international community to deny it recognition. China is trying to capture Taiwan without ever having to fight. China is trying to do everything in the South China Sea and the East China Sea without ever having to fight, simply by slowly building up forces, by Finland, trying to Finlandize Vietnam and the Philippines, and making claims against Japan in the East China Sea, all of which serve to help China make an end run around Taiwanese sovereignty. 1,500 Chinese ballistic missiles focused against Taiwan, but at the same time, 270 commercial flights a week between Taiwan and China, so that Taiwan is being incorporated into China, and coerced into China as we speak.

HH: But they also maintain, and I had never known about the National Palace Museum. They also maintain their foundation myth of being different from China.

RK: Yes.

HH: So they are schizophrenic.

RK: And yes, and they maintain this foundation myth as being the real China, which isn’t just a diplomatic claim that you read about, you know, in the newspapers. They actually have the most important treasures of Chinese antiquity. They’re not in Beijing and the Forbidden City. They’re in Taiwan at the National Palace Museum, because Chiang Kai-Shek and his son were able to get, to take them before being overrun in the late 1940s. So you know, what the National Palace Museum, the reason I devote space to it is it’s making a cultural claim…

HH: Yup.

RK: …that has political implications.

HH: How is their military designed, what is it designed to do? Just to give them space until the United States arrives and escalates?

RK: Their military is really about making a land invasion by China so painful that China would never attempt it. It just wouldn’t do it. And this is what I mean by China wants to make an end run around Taiwanese sovereignty rather than have to ever fight Taiwan.

HH: And so why does Singapore, this is a little out of context, and I’ll come back, why do they have an air force the size of Australia’s when they have 3.3 million people, and Australia’s got, you know, 25 million?

RK: First of all, Singapore was formed at a time when Indonesia and Malaysia were much bigger than Singapore right next door, and at the time, they were very hostile to newly-independent Singapore. So it was about protection. It was like a little country surrounded by big giants. In later years, as the diplomatic relationship between Singapore and Malaysia and Indonesia stabilized, they need this big military to keep China honest.

HH: Now I was no stranger to Lee Kuan Yew, because I worked for Nixon in his retirement, and he greatly admired Lee Kuan Yew. But as I think anyone who puts down Asia’s Cauldron is going to say, if Robert Kaplan admires any recent world historical figure, it’s Lee Kuan Yew.

RK: Yes, absolutely. Lee was one of the great minor men of the 20th Century, not on a scale of Roosevelt or Churchill, of course. They are the great major men. But in the level below, he’s on line with Ataturk, Ben Gurion, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, Nelson Mandela, etc. And but what Lee Kuan Yew did was he provided a blueprint for governance to bring a country form a poor, backward, third-world state to a first-world state without too much coercion, but also, and here’s what’s provocative about it, without complete democracy, a kind of enlightened authoritarian democracy, a mixed regime.

HH: It’s a great portrait worth getting Asia’s Cauldron just for that. But there’s much more as we’ll cover with Robert Kaplan when we come back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – - – -

HH: This hour, I’m going real big, up to 30,000 feet with Robert Kaplan, whose brand new book, Asia’s Cauldron, came out last week while I was sailing in the Caribbean, which is incorporated by reference into Asia’s Cauldron. And Robert Kaplan, is your book published in China by the way?

RK: I’ve just sold rights.

HH: Okay, because I image they’re all going to want to read it, and they’re not going to be offended. But I am not so sure about the Vietnamese. Now as we speak, I have a friend, Richard Botkin, who’s in Hawaii filming a documentary called Ride The Thunder about the Vietnam War. He loves Vietnam, he goes back and forth, he’s a Marine. After ten years, he got out, but got a Marines’ view of it. And you have a very interesting chapter here. Vietnam is on the edge of a boom governed by a communist party that’s all but given up being communist. But will we go through the door that you are quite obviously describing as open?

RK: Yes. In fact, we have been. We’ve had closer and closer military relations with the Vietnamese. They are dredging and modernizing Cam Ranh Bay Naval Station so as to, they won’t say this officially, but it’s all about encouraging more visits by American warships. The Vietnamese fought one war against the United States. They fought a dozen or two against China in their history. China is close and threatening. The United States is far away and non-threatening. The Vietnamese are using us as a hedge against China.

HH: So can you see as you look out twenty, thirty years, right now we have the George Washington, and we always have at least one carrier on permanent station in Japan. Can you see something like that at Cam Ranh Bay in the future?

RK: Yes, absolutely.

HH: Wow.

RK: The only thing that would keep a carrier from being stationed in Cam Ranh Bay is the Vietnamese, I don’t believe, have the facilities to service and repair a nuke, a nuclear carrier. The Singaporians do, and they do that for us. The Japanese do and they do, and they will be doing that for us. But the Vietnamese don’t. But any other kind of U.S. warship, they will be, you know, frigates, LCSes, perhaps even cruisers, they’ll be able to handle.

HH: Now you also mention, and this is very optimistic, that the Philippines after our divorce want to get remarried, and that’s very good, and I’ll come back if we have time to the Scarborough Shoal Affair. But in broad strokes, they want us back.

RK: Yes. In 1992, the Philippines essentially humiliated the United States and forced us to leave Clark Air Field and Subic Bay Naval Station in the main island of Luzon in the Philippines. There was like a spurt of anti-Americanism. What happened, though, starting in the mid-1990s, China started building a great navy in full force. And by a decade later, that navy was demonstrable and started making threatening noises against the Philippines. So now we’re at the stage where the Filipinos need us back. They don’t, you’re not going to see a formal reopening of Clark and Subic. We will not have formal bases there anymore. We will be rotating forces more. Like in Vietnam, just like the Vietnamese, the Filipinos will be encouraging visits by more and more U.S. air and naval platforms as a hedge against China.

HH: Now after the break, I’ll come back to Malaysia and Indonesia as we wrap up, but is there a concert of smaller nations developing here with us as its spine, but far way so that those hundred airplanes in Singapore and those six submarines there cooperate with the Taiwanese, cooperate with the Philippines, cooperate with the Vietnamese to try and go Lilliputian on China?

RK: Well, no, we’re the hub in this spoke. All these countries go to us. They don’t go to each other. This is changing slowly. There’s more and more bilateral ties on a military level, the security level, between these two countries, between these smaller countries as you describe. But the Pacific is not Europe. There is no NATO in the Pacific. You know, all, everything is oriented towards Honolulu, which of course is the location of U.S. Pacific Command.

— – - – -

HH: Before I turn to Malaysia, Robert, the Defense budget was revealed in detail this week, and unbelievably, the Tomahawk and the Hellfire are being reduced, you know, almost to insignificance. The A-10 Warthog about which you’ve written in previous books is being closed off. What did you make of this budget? Our cruisers are being dry docked. What did you make of this?

RK: Well, the optics are terrible, because first of all, we’re seen to be decreasing our Defense budget at the same time we’re viewed as being less and less authoritative around the world, at the same time that China’s Defense budget is increasing. So the symbolism is just awful. The cuts in the Defense budget, of course, go back to the economic difficulties in the United States, you know, the policy of the Obama administration, etc. etc. The problem with cut is, you know, everyone says smart cuts won’t hurt the military. And of course, they’re right. But cuts are never smart because of the way politics are, you know?

HH: Yup.

RK: They just, things get slashed and burned. If you had twenty brilliant policy wonks thinking of how you cut $400 billion off the Defense budget in a smart, efficient manner and deal with the procurement problem so we don’t spend $12 billion on each new carrier without any planes on it, there’s a more efficient way to do it, that would all be wonderful. The Defense budget probably can be cut significantly if it’s done in a really smart, brilliant, efficient way. But that doesn’t happen in the real world.

HH: Good caution.

RK: So that’s why Defense budgets hurt, Defense budget cuts hurt.

HH: Now I want to make sure we talk about Malaysia, because I don’t know if you, you obviously did not plan Asia’s Cauldron to have these huge chapters on Malaysia just as Malaysia enters into the consciousness of Americans in a big way, in a tragic way, in a horribly embarrassing way for the first time. But are you watching, you yourself watching the Malaysian military being embarrassed and saying ouch?

RK: Yeah, look, the problem with the media is that the media judges a whole country and its history based on the latest odd event. You know, the odd event becomes the pivot point at which to interpret a country.

HH: Yeah.

RK: What I’m doing in this book is I’m looking at Malaysia based on its own history, on the past 35 or 40 years of its history, and I’m describing the current situation in the country based on that history. And what I see is not a hapless country that cannot run an efficient airline. What I see is a country that’s grown by leaps and bounds economically and in terms of bureaucracy and infrastructure into a really dynamic postmodern society that has been able to non-violently handle its civilizational tensions between the Indians, the Chinese and Malay Muslims very well. Now obviously, that doesn’t make Malaysia as accountable and as efficient as, like, a first-world country as we’ve seen in this recent incident over the airliner. But it has made incredible strides.

HH: Now I was surprised to learn, and I just did learn it from reading Asia’s Cauldron, that Malaysia is the only Muslim country with regularly scheduled elections since 1957. It’s a one party state, you point that out, but I got the impression that it’s not that different from the political system in Mexico when PRI just won every election prior to the rise of PAN and the others. But they’re in the middle of evolving into a fully-functioning democracy, and we ought to be cheering them.

RK: Exactly. They are in the middle of evolving. And by the way, there’s a lot less violence in Malaysia than there’s been in Mexico. I’ve traveled in both countries extensively, and I feel far, far more secure in Malaysia than I do in Mexico.

HH: Interesting. So Robert, wrap up for us if you will. People have to read Asia’s Cauldron, but as you look out to 2050, and that’s a generation, and that’s how Defense people have to think, there are so many ships, 60,000 ships going through this particular part of the world, and so many submarines and boats and carriers and planes. Are we going to have a major incident there, one that spirals as opposed to the one in the Philippines which didn’t?

RK: The chances of a significant military incident goes up. It does not go down, projecting into the future. So that means diplomacy has to be even more brilliant than it already is so as to keep such an incident or incidents over the years from spiraling into a wider conflict.

HH: And to do that, is America better served by increasing the number of assets it pus there, more carriers, more subs, or by keeping the status quo?

RK: I think the status quo may be sufficient. What I’m afraid of is that the status quo may not stay the status quo, that we may have less naval and air platforms in the region as the years go on, not more.

HH: Let me close where I began – submarines. You point out that if the Chinese plan keeps going, their sub fleet will equal ours in 2020, and that’s only if we keep our paper commitments, and we’re not really keeping it on the Virginia class. What does that actually practically mean?

RK: It means that the Chinese have more coercive power, because the essence of military power, particularly naval power, is you’re seen as stronger and stronger without ever having to go to war. So that affects diplomacy, and that affects the actions of both your allies and adversaries. If our allies from Japan to Australia perceive the United States, in a naval and air sense, as gradually weaker over the years and decades, they will make their peace with an authoritarian China, and be partially Finlandized by it.

HH: Wow, you remember that great book about American submarines, Soviet submarine warfare…

RK: Blind Man’s Bluff?

HH: Yeah.

RK: Excellent book.

HH: Is that going on now with China?

RK: I don’t know. Not, certainly not to the same degree as it is. But that is one of the great military classics of the Cold War, that book.

HH: Well, you’ve written a great, I think, great book that is a guide to the future. It’s not cold war, it’s a naval contest. Asia’s Cauldron is in bookstores now. It’s linked over at Get it. Read it. Be smarter for having done so. Robert Kaplan from Sratfor, always a pleasure.

End of interview.

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