By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
Asia specialists will not openly admit it, but they hate the Middle East. To them, the Middle East is the great distraction that keeps people from focusing on what's really important — their own area in the Western Pacific.
The media are primarily to blame, according to this narrative. The media love sudden drama, even as the grand trend lines of history are often gradual and economic. The media love wars. The Middle East does not disappoint: The Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, the Syrian civil war and the tragedy of Iraq have all occurred in the region that the public (and thus the media) consider sacred: the Holy Land, that is, the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia. In other words, the Middle East may be a distraction, but it contains blood, myth and emotion — the stuff of news. Whereas all Asia can offer is substance.
Of course, the Middle East has substance, too. Wars aside, the Persian Gulf is still the world's principal energy depot and will be for some time, notwithstanding new oil and natural gas discoveries the world over. While the United States may be less and less in need of Persian Gulf oil, this is a gradual development. Bottom line: The Middle East matters. And the media are not being sensationalist by their obsession with it.
But the Asia specialists have a large point. Start with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: Despite the celebrity coverage she garners, she has not been a great diplomat. Her term in office has not coincided with any brilliantly executed negotiations or strategic moves. She has not opened up China, brought all of Germany into NATO or ended the war in Bosnia like Henry Kissinger, James Baker or the late Richard Holbrooke. That's why the memory of her term in office will fade fast. But if she is remembered for anything, it will be for concentrating on Asia to a greater degree than any U.S. secretary of state since Kissinger. True, her so-called "pivot" to Asia may have been more words than substance, even as some Asian hands themselves have found the strategy wanting. But all can agree that her constant shuttling back and forth to Asia — where over four years she has visited virtually every country in the region except Taiwan and North Korea — had a serious and estimable purpose.
That purpose is that Asia should be front and center on America's strategic map, not only because of the region's current importance, but because its stability cannot be taken for granted.
The fact of Asia's current importance needs little belaboring. To the extent that the world's economy has a geographic center, it is Asia. To the extent that the great sea lines of communication coalesce anywhere it is Asia. To the extent that any place is the global demographic hub, it is clearly Asia. Moreover, by virtue of its own geography, the United States is a Pacific country. To wit, many of the wars the United States fought in the 20th century — in the Philippines, World War II, Korea and Vietnam — were fought in Asia.
But the more profound reason that Clinton and the Asia specialists are right is because they all know that the region's stability can no longer be taken for granted. For decades Asia has been primarily an economic story: whether it be the rise of China, the rise of Vietnam, the emergence of Indonesia or stagnation in Japan. In other words, it has been a Forbes, Fortune, Bloomberg or generic business channel story. True, over the past two decades the region's economic rise has led to a robust military rise, particularly in China. And that has been dutifully reported. But because this rise is overwhelmingly air, naval and cyber, it is abstract. Thus, it cannot compete with the grisly land fighting in the Middle East. The New York Times tends to have military specialists as some of its correspondents in the Middle East, whereas in Asia the pattern has tended to be that regional bureau chiefs occasionally write military stories.
But what if Asia erupts? In its own way, of course; not in the way of the Middle East. This is what the Asia specialists — and, I suspect, Clinton — are worried about. They are concerned with all of us being asleep in the quiet years while Asia slowly unravels. They are concerned that we've all been taking Asian stability for granted.
What would an unraveling Asia look like? China's economic slowdown could lead to a political crisis that would not be assuaged by the purging of this or that official, in the way that Bo Xilai was purged. The political crisis could lead to a messy form of liberalization, which would lead, in turn, to increased, sustained unrest in the ethnic minority areas surrounding the ethnic-Han cradle. Tibet would come into play, as India maneuvers to take advantage of Beijing's relative weakness there. Thus could Chinese-Indian relations deteriorate. China would not unravel or fracture, but it would become a weaker state, less susceptible to central control. And that weakening of civilian central control would lead to a more autonomous, nationalistic military that, in turn, would become more adventurous in the Western Pacific, particularly in the South China Sea. In other words, counterintuitively, China could become weaker as a state, even as it becomes more aggressive militarily. The army would deal with ethnic unrest, while the navy and air force would posture more aggressively in the maritime sphere.
Japan, meanwhile, will awake from its decadeslong sleep, and continue to shed its quasi-pacifism in favor of a more normal attitude toward its military. This would be, in part, a reaction to China's own military aggressiveness. Japan is currently seeing the rise of regionalism. To be sure, Japan has no ethnic or sectarian problems. But it does have a variety of geographical interests based on being a large, north-south network of islands. Such regionalism would lead to a solution to internal problems of development that would culminate in a greater degree of nationalism and centralization later on.
In other words, China and Japan would be in more tumult, even as their militaries more aggressively eye each other.
At the same time, North Korea finally will begin to emerge from its hermetic, totalitarian state. In a world of instant, electronic communications, the regime in Pyongyang cannot perpetuate its unique brand of tyranny indefinitely. Because any sort of opening or liberalization under such conditions must ultimately lead to instability, the Korean Peninsula would finally be in play for the first time in almost 60 years.
Finally, the multitude of territorial disputes in the East China Sea, South China Sea and in the Sea of Japan, will continue to erode relationships in the Western Pacific. The legal complexities will make diplomatic solutions problematic, even as all sides build up their militaries, and China's particularly dramatic military rise will create a deepening imbalance of power.
These above trends are not fanciful; in fact, they are developing as we speak, however slowly. The only thing required for their fruition is continuity. The lesson is to concentrate on the wider world by adhering to a sound geopolitical wisdom and to not fixate on the handful of countries in the Holy Land that happen to be the foreign extensions of the American media's obsessions.