The Revenge of Geography and the Asia-Pacific

Interview with Robert Kaplan
September 12, 2012

In his new book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, Robert Kaplan (Stratfor Global Intelligence) contends current global conflicts, including wars, political instability, and clashes over religion, can be better understood and even forecasted through close examination of the maps that chart our world. In this Q&A, NBR’s Abraham Denmark asks Kaplan how this theory relates to the Asia-Pacific, and what challenges geography will play for the United States’ policy toward the region.

An Interview with Robert Kaplan

By Abraham Denmark
September 12, 2012

In his new book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, Robert Kaplan (Stratfor Global Intelligence) contends that current global conflicts, including wars, political instability, and clashes over religion, can be better understood and even forecasted through close examination of the maps that chart our world. In this Q&A, NBR’s Abraham Denmark asks Kaplan how this theory relates to the Asia-Pacific and what challenges geography will present for the United States’ policy toward the region.

For those looking at the Asia-Pacific, what do you think is the most important message of your book?

The most important message about the Asia-Pacific in my book is that China is both big and small at the same time. China is big in that its influence extends all the way into the Russian Far East and Central and Southeast Asia. China is small in the sense that inside China there exist many minorities—Turks, Tibetans, Inner-Mongolians—that are restless. As its economic crisis ramps up, we can expect more ethnic unrest within China.

We should not take the country’s stability for granted. China may have unstable times ahead that could affect everything in the Asia-Pacific region, including disputes in the South China Sea and relations with Japan. The fate of the region hinges on whether China will remain stable.

What challenges will geography present to the international system as it is currently constructed?

The spread of long-range military capabilities and communications technologies is making the world smaller and collapsing distance. Yet this does not mean geography is irrelevant. Quite the opposite, geography is now more precious. And because geography is more precious, it is also less stable. The very finite size of the earth itself is a force for instability. We’re entering not so much a world where there is an East Asia, a South Asia, and a Southeast Asia, but a world where the whole of Eurasia constitutes one organic, interconnected geography.

How will geography affect the ability of the United States to address challenges in the Eurasian continent, specifically Iran, North Korea, China, and the Indo-Pacific Oceans?

There is nothing artificial about Iran, as the Iranian state completely configures with the Iranian plateau. The argument can be made that Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iraq are artificial states, but you cannot make that argument about Iran. Given this, the Iranian state’s future prospects are very strong, even if the current regime may face crises and transform itself (or be replaced). The United States, because of geography, must think in these terms when dealing with Iran.

China recognizes the importance of North Korea’s geography. The two countries are connected by the Tumen River area, which could be a center for trade in the Russian Far East. So China is very interested in North Korea for geographic reasons. Therefore, what Beijing would like to see in North Korea is some sort of low-calorie version of a Communist buffer state—in other words, a system that is still authoritarian and is an ally of China but not quite as totalitarian as it is now.

Regarding the Indian and Pacific Oceans, I think we should view them as one maritime Eurasian rimland, stretching from the Horn of Africa all the way up to the Sea of Japan. So the United States has to stop thinking of this vast area of Eurasia as divided into separate parts and instead recognize how energy interconnects the resources of the Middle East and the consumers in Asia. Put differently, the Indian Ocean is the world’s energy interstate. The United States should therefore understand the interconnectivity of the Eurasian maritime rimland and develop strategies accordingly.

You discuss integration as an important trend across the Eurasian continent. How has it exposed or exasperated domestic divisions in the Asia-Pacific? Specifically focusing on the territorial disputes roiling the South and East China Seas, how have forces of integration, such as social media, influenced the ability of states to act calmly or rationally in tense situations?

Over the past few decades, countries that have historically been internally focused have begun to express their nationalism outward into the blue waters. This includes countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and China—which used to have unstable domestic situations and have consolidated themselves as strong states.

Where these countries have projected their power outward is where they have come into conflict. Disputes in the South China Sea, around which there may or may not be vast supplies of energy, have become symbols of statehood and patriotism in a global media environment. These disputes along with disputes in the East Sea and the Sea of Japan, show the reach of globalization and global media and that geography still matters intensely. The fight for status is still very strong.

You describe “shatter zones” as areas in Eurasia that are prone to conflict and could destabilize the region a great deal. What are the potential shatter zones in the Asia-Pacific, and how do they affect U.S. regional interests? What should the United States do about them?

I already mentioned the most important shatter zone in the Asia-Pacific, China itself. I would also say that the South China Sea is a shatter zone precisely because it has become so symbolic. It is easy to see that miscalculations could happen and that disputes could spiral out of hand.

The Korean Peninsula remains the principal shatter zone of the region because it is difficult to see good prospects in a global information environment for a country so closed off and hermetic. The outlook for the North Korean regime, as it currently runs itself, is not good. Therefore, we have to expect some sort of unstable meltdown on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean regime may try to open up, to liberalize its economy, but vast changes never go smoothly. There are always miscalculations because such changes are difficult to implement. Because of this, the North Korean regime, and the Korean Peninsula in general, has to be considered the main potential shatter zone.

You argue that realism has become the dominant force in American foreign policy, and you wrote that “this means valuing order above freedom, because the latter only becomes important after the former has been established.” How does this apply to America’s strategy on how to integrate China into the existing international order? Some realists such as Henry Kissinger say that the United States should give China space in the international order while others call for more assertiveness and argue that China should adapt to the world. What do your book and the forces of geography more broadly suggest?

My book suggests that China is a “prison of nations” because although China is an ethnic Han cradle, it is surrounded by minorities. Minority issues will likely become more salient as China goes through a tumultuous transition. China has to go through some sort of tumultuous transition because it can’t keep on stimulating its economy to death. Basically what has been happening in China is a never-ending stimulus. China has to reform and reorganize its economy in some basic structural ways if it is going to have sufficient growth and stability.

The question of how much room should we give China inside the world economic system has to be answered in the context of a period of ongoing political and economic crises in China, a period we just entered and which will probably continue for quite some time. My tendency is to lean in the Kissinger direction, because China will not be able to satisfy the United States completely. China is just too big and too geographically important for the United States to completely alienate and isolate it.

You describe and compare the lessons of Vietnam and Munich as dominant metaphors in American strategic thought. As China’s power rises and it acts more assertively in disputes with neighbors, do you believe Munich is an accurate example or lesson for strategists?

No, I don’t believe that Munich is an accurate example for China. The Munich and Vietnam analogies should always be on our minds when we consider humanitarian interventions, but China is not Nazi Germany or even Iran. China is a legitimate state that is authoritarian but not totalitarian. Feisty political and economic debates occur in Beijing all the time. China is a legitimate member of the world system.

Rather than using the Munich or Vietnam extremes, the task will be how to accommodate China’s economic and military allies with our treaty allies (e.g., the Philippines and Japan) and our new de facto allies (e.g., Vietnam). The United States has to steer between letting China dominate the South China Sea and letting countries like Vietnam and the Philippines drag us into a conflict with China. The United States must walk a fine line between those two extremes.

Abraham Denmark is Senior Project Director for Political and Security Affairs at NBR.