Robert D. Kaplan on the Rise of Asia (Agenda)
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Colin Chapman: During the week, a report from the United States National Intelligence Council told us that by 2030, Asia will have overtaken Europe and America combined in terms of global power. Not much new in that. After all, that's been in currency for some time. But Asia is a big continent with conflicting cultures, strategies, policies and economies, and a lot can happen between now and 2030.
Welcome to Agenda and joining me again this week is Chief Geopolitical Analyst Robert Kaplan. Robert, that report, Global Trends 2030, told us what we already know: that it's an Asian century. But it didn't tell us how all the moving parts of this great engine were going to work together, or even if they will work together.
Robert Kaplan: That's exactly right. The 2030 National Intelligence Council report blandly predicts that by 2030 China's economy will be the leading economy in the world. Well between now and 2030, a lot can happen. China could collapse; it could go through severe socioeconomic political strains. Japan could become much more nationalistic. I think that we have too long been taking Asia's stability for granted. For too many decades, we've seen Asia as a strictly Bloomberg, Fortune, Forbes magazine story. It's where all the business journalists go and all the military guys go to cover the Middle East. I don't believe that for an instant. I can see signs of a lot of increased instability throughout Asia, and we can take this apart piece by piece.
Colin: Stability of course can't be taken for granted.
Robert: Yes, that's the core point. Let's look at it country by country. The Chinese Communist Party, which is just a fancy name for the latest Chinese dynasty, has led China to unprecedented standards of growth, economic development over the past 30 years. But it's brought it to a point where a whole new round of comprehensive reforms are going to be needed just at a time when in Europe and the United states, there's less and less purchasing power for Chinese exports, which means that it's unclear that this Chinese dynasty is able to deliver these second rounds or third rounds of comprehensive reforms and to maintain the same level of power as they did before. And if power devolves, if there is a massive political crisis, you could have unrest in Inner Mongolia, unrest in the Turkic Uighur, Xinjiang province, unrest in Tibet. You could have a military, a People's Liberation Army and navy and air force that are more autonomous and less completely under the control of civilian leaders, with results that could lead to more instability, more incidents in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea. And then there's Japan Vietnam to talk about and other countries as well.
Colin: Let's go to Japan. Elections this weekend that we'll probably see the Liberal Democratic Party back and the return of Shinzo Abe, but also signs of rising nationalism.
Robert: Yes, what we're seeing is frankly the normalization of Japan. For many decades, since the close of World War II, Japan operated as a defeated, rebuilt society for most of those decades under the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, which was neither liberal nor democratic nor a party. In other words, it was essentially a mild bureaucratic autocracy that had the trappings of democracy. And one of the tenets of this system, which persists until recently, is that Japan is only allowed a self-defense force, that the military is somewhat looked down upon, that Japan does not, because of its fascist past, cannot assume a normal attitude toward a military. That is quickly changing. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force now may have four times as many major warships in operation as the British Royal Navy. Japan has niche capacities in special operations forces and in diesel-electric submarines. Increasingly, as a quasi-pacifism disappears from Japan, Japan is moving more toward a normal attitude toward military use and is reacquiring nationalism. So as the Chinese military becomes more autonomous and more truculent, Japanese nationalism is returning. Not the fascist style as before but a normal nationalism and when you put these trends together, what you see is increased tension -- military tension -- between China and Japan and then there is North Korea to consider.
North Korea is a very hermetic, totalitarian regime that in this age of instant communications and open societies cannot have a bright future, I do not believe. In other divided country scenarios of the 20th century that involved one ethnic group divided artificially by ideology --East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam, North and South Yemen -- in all cases, the two parts came together in tumultuous fashion within a relatively short period of time with all the experts being wrong as to what would happen. So while Japan and China…while China militarizes more and becomes more unstable internally, while Japan reacquires nationalism, you have the prospect of some time in the future of a North Korean unraveling, perhaps.
Colin: Both candidates for president in the South Korean election favor reunification, but a very senior Korean diplomat told me just a few days that the cost to the South would be huge and that some kind of normalization might be a better way.
Robert: Yes, look, slow gradual change is always to be preferred to sudden, tumultuous change. Because sudden, tumultuous change usually leads to upheaval and instability. This isn't always the case but it's usually the case. I don't think anyone including especially the South Koreans want to sea a sudden implosion of North Korea. I think they would like to see a slow, Gorbachevian transition period perhaps of five or 10 years because North Korea is just so much poorer than South Korea. The difference in living standards and the economies between the two Koreas is much greater than the difference in the living standards between the two Germanys during the Cold War.
Colin: Now Vietnam is also interesting and then, briefly, we should not forget India.
Robert: Yes let me talk also a little bit about Vietnam. Vietnam after again, like China, several decades of impressive growth is now experiencing kind of a brick wall. They can't go any further until there are major economic reforms. So we may get some amount of tumult in Vietnam. We have the South China Sea issue, the East China Sea issue, which is because all these states have been building navies and air forces and cyber capabilities. They now have this fight over territory in the blue waters off East Asia. The power balance between China and Vietnam, between China and the Philippines, between China and Malaysia gets worse each year as China pulls ahead and is more and more able to intimidate its neighbors. And therein lies the importance of the United States Navy playing such a great role. India of course as you mentioned is part of what I call the Indo-Pacific region. And India simply because of where it is and the size of its economy and air force and navy is a somewhat counterbalance to China. India, interestingly, has been aligning more and more with Vietnam against China in South China Sea issues so that, again, we're back to increasing instability. We had several decades of an internally focused China of a quasi-pacifistic Japan, of an undynamic India, a Vietnam that was focused internally on building up its economy and a unipolar American naval power in the Western Pacific. That age is giving way to a much more complicated epic of rising Chinese power, plateauing American power, a more nationalistic Japan and a more robust Indian foreign and defense policy. So again, Asia will provide us with interesting news in the years and decades to come.
Colin: Robert, thanks very much for that analysis. And thank you for being with Stratfor. See you next time.