JULY 24, 2013
By Robert D. Kaplan
The biggest question in international affairs has nothing to do with Syria or Iran going nuclear. It is has to do with the state of the Chinese economy, and the ability of China's one-party system to navigate through an economic slowdown to a different growth model. China's leaders will likely survive this trial. But what if they don't? What if China faces a severe socio-economic crisis and attendant political one of an unforeseen magnitude? What would be the second-order geopolitical effects? If Syria explodes, it does so regionally. If China explodes, it does so globally.
Such a crisis could lead to an upsurge in nationalism, an emotion that can be easily dialed upwards by Communist party leaders as a means of clinging to power. And it would not only be Communist leaders who play the nationalist card: dissidents and aspiring democrats both might do so as a way to gain political legitimacy. More nationalism would mean more of the same military activity in China's near abroad. China's defense budget has already increased eight-fold since 2001, and might continue to do so under a more nationalist-style regime (even amid slowing growth), enabling China to further implement an anti-access area-denial strategy in the East and South China seas, emphasizing submarine, ballistic missile, and cyber warfare capabilities. The aim would not be to go to war with the U.S. Navy and Air Force (quite the opposite, in fact), but to establish a force ratio more favorable to the continued, perceived growth of Chinese maritime power. But none of this would alter the current state of play in the Indian and Western Pacific oceans -- defined by a slowly diminishing unipolar American air and naval environment.
But what if the opposite occurred? What if an economic and political crisis ignited a downward trend in Chinese military procurements, or at least a less steep growth curve? This is also quite possible: to assuage public anger at poverty and lack of jobs, China's leaders might, for political reasons, ask the military to make sacrifices of its own. After all, a Chinese Spring might be all about demanding more freedom and not about nationalism. Over time, this could affect the foundations of the Eurasian maritime order, albeit to a lesser extent than the collapse of the Berlin Wall shook the foundations of the European continental order.
Stalled Chinese defense budgets would reinvigorate a Pax Americana from the Sea of Japan to the Persian Gulf, despite the debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and despite the U.S. military budget crunch. The U.S. Navy would own the seas as though World War II had just ended. Japan, which continues to modernize its air force and navy (the latter is several times larger than the British Royal Navy), would emerge as an enhanced air and sea power in Asia. The same goes for a future reunified Korea governed from Seoul, which, in the event of a weakened China, would face Japan as a principal rival, with the United States keeping the peace between the two states. Remember that Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, and the hostility between Japan and Korea is thus much greater than the hostility between Korea and China.
Turmoil in China would slow the economic and security integration of Taiwan with the mainland. With more than 1,500 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan from the mainland and 270 commercial flights per week between the two Chinas, U.S. military aid to Taipei is designed to defend Taiwan against a sudden Chinese attack, but not necessarily to postpone an inevitable unification of sorts. But the inevitable unification might not happen in the event of a prolonged political crisis in Beijing: a likelier scenario in this case would be for different regional Chinas, democratic to greater or lesser extents, more loosely tied to Beijing, to begin to emerge. This, too, translates into a renewed Pax Americana as long as U.S. defense cuts don't go too far.
The South China Sea is where the effects of U.S. military decline would, in a geopolitical sense, be most keenly felt. China's geographical centrality, its economic heft (still considerable), and its burgeoning air and naval forces translate into Finlandization for Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore in the event of large-scale U.S. defense cuts. However, internal disarray in China, combined with modest U.S. defense cuts that do not fundamentally affect America's Pacific forces, could unleash the opposite effect. Emboldened by a continued American presence and a less than dominant Chinese military, countries such as Singapore and Australia, which are already spending impressively on arms relative to the size of their populations, could emerge, in a comparable military sense at least, as little Israels in Asia, without having to spend more on defense than they already are. Vietnam, meanwhile, with a larger population than Turkey or Iran, and dominating the South China Sea's western seaboard, could become a full-fledged middle-level power in its own right were Beijing's regional grip to loosen, and were Vietnam to gradually gets its own economic house in order.