Robert D. Kaplan: While U.S. is Distracted, China Develops Sea Power





[Robert D. Kaplan is the author of "Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power." He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine.]

The greatest geopolitical development that has occurred largely beneath the radar of our Middle East-focused media over the past decade has been the rise of Chinese sea power. This is evinced by President Obama's meeting Friday about the South China Sea, where China has conducted live-fire drills and made territorial claims against various Southeast Asian countries, and the dispute over the Senkaku Islands between Japan and China in the East China Sea, the site of a recent collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese coast guard ships.

Whereas an island nation such as Britain goes to sea as a matter of course, a continental nation with long and contentious land borders, such as China, goes to sea as a luxury. The last time China went to sea in the manner that it is doing was in the early 15th century, when the Ming Dynasty explorer Zheng He sailed his fleets as far as the Horn of Africa. His journeys around the southern Eurasian rim ended when the Ming emperors became distracted by their land campaigns against the Mongols to the north. Despite occasional unrest among the Muslim Uighur Turks in western China, history is not likely to repeat itself. If anything, the forces of Chinese demography and corporate control are extending Chinese power beyond the country's dry-land frontiers -- into Russia, Mongolia and Central Asia....

The United States should not consider China an enemy. But neither is it in our interest to be distracted while a Chinese economic empire takes shape across Eurasia. This budding empire is being built on our backs: the protection of the sea lines of communication by the U.S. Navy and the pacification of Afghanistan by U.S. ground troops. It is through such asymmetry -- we pay far more to maintain what we have than it costs the Chinese to replace us -- that great powers rise and fall. That is why the degree to which the United States can shift its focus from the Middle East to East Asia will say much about our future prospects as a great power.

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