Since World War II, more American soldiers have perished in East Asia than anywhere else. The twin imperatives of containing Communism and maintaining the regional balance of power drew U.S. forces into wars in Korea and Vietnam, with casualties far exceeding those of later conflicts in the Middle East.
Yet for all the American blood shed in the region, Washington’s policy goals in Asia never faced a serious threat during the Cold War. In the U.S.–Soviet rivalry, East Asia played a peripheral role to the competition for Europe. Meanwhile, for Mao’s China, international relations took a back-seat to the development of Communism domestically. Land wars notwithstanding, the U.S. comfortably maintained control of Asia’s seas and skies throughout the period; the “hot” conflicts were ancillary to the “cold” competition. “It is not misleading to conclude that for half a century after World War II, strategy in Asia was relatively easy for Washington,” writes Michael Auslin in his new book, Asia’s New Geopolitics.
“Not so today.” China’s rise presents the U.S. with a near-peer competitor in the region for the first time since the fall of the Japanese empire. A fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Auslin presents a wide-ranging analysis of the implications of this new great-power rivalry. The eight essays collected in Asia’s New Geopolitics — running the gamut from feminism in India to militarism in China — paint a variegated portrait of a region whose stability depends on a renewed American grand strategy.
Since the fall of the USSR, American strategy in Asia has been wanting. Rather than conceiving of the Indo-Pacific as an interconnected whole, policymakers have tended to focus on subregions. Auslin argues that a failure “to conceptualize the area in its totality, including the various linkages that cross ethnic, cultural, and linguistic lines,” has rendered U.S. policy haphazard, focused on tactics at the expense of strategy. This limitation was manifest in the Obama administration’s much-heralded “pivot to Asia,” which at times appeared to entail military deterrence of China while at other times appearing to entail friendly cooperation. The Obama team never chose between the competing goals of strengthening trade with China and maintaining the regional balance of power. Because Chinese businesses cooperate with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), economic engagement with Beijing directly undermined American defense objectives. As a result, the Obama years saw the expansion of Chinese territory in the East and South China Seas, the doubling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and the deterioration of U.S. relations with the Philippines.
The 2019 National Security Strategy to achieve a “free and open Indo-Pacific” represents a partial correction of this strategic myopia. By expanding the Asian-Pacific theater to include the Indian Ocean and the Eastern Pacific, the Trump administration has adopted a mental map more conducive to a holistic strategy. But, Auslin points out, the sheer immensity of the Indo-Pacific calls for strategic focus — not through the subregional specialization of the Obama State Department, but through the delineation of clear, attainable objectives.
To that end, Auslin invokes Yale geopolitical theorist Nicholas Spykman’s concept of the “Asiatic Mediterranean.” Expanding on Halford Mackinder’s theory of the Eurasian “heartland” as the locus of global power, Spykman emphasized the importance of controlling the coastal territories, or “rimlands,” which permit access to the heartland. The struggle for the heavily populated, economically productive rimlands would play out in their littoral waters or “inner seas.” Thus did Spykman depart from Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theory that control of the high seas was strategically paramount.
The invocation of Spykman — who died during the Second World War and subscribed to the old-fashioned German method of geopolitics — will strike some as dated. Since the end of the Cold War, high politics and statecraft have given way to a technical political science segmented by region and discipline. It is this serialized political-scientific approach that leads some to see Chinese regional hegemony as having only local consequences. History says otherwise: The Asiatic Mediterranean — comprising the East and South China Seas, the Yellow Sea, and the Sea of Japan — and its adjacent rimlands have been a major venue of great-power competition since the 1895 Sino–Japanese War. As Spykman put it, “who controls the rimland, rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” China has accordingly been willing to part with various land claims, compromising on a territorial dispute with India as recently as 2005, while rapidly militarizing islands in its coastal waters.
Auslin’s elucidation of the stakes of this conflict exposes the insufficiency of the serialized approach. As he explains, a Chinese military in control of the Asiatic Mediterranean would effectively control the entirety of Asia: its many billions of people and its immense productive capacity. Just as U.S. control of the Mariana Islands made it possible for the Enola Gay to make the six-hour flight to Hiroshima, so China’s control of the islands in the East and South China Seas would provide a foothold for a host of offensive measures. Indeed, China may have already won that foothold: A 2019 study from the University of Sydney found that the PLA could disable American bases in the Western Pacific in the opening hours of a conflict.
But Beijing’s ambitions are not limited to the sea. Its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative attempts a feat that would undo Carl Schmitt’s theory of world history as a battle between land powers and sea powers by building dominance in both realms. Through OBOR and the supporting Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has begun building a transnational nexus of trade routes with China at its center. This 21st-century Silk Road includes Mediterranean ports purchased by the CCP as well as East African maritime assets foreclosed on by Chinese state lenders. Beijing’s “debt-trap diplomacy,” i.e., its practice of extending loans to insolvent governments and seizing strategic infrastructure after an inevitable default, is a sign of what’s to come in a global economy shaped by China, as Auslin outlines in an essay titled “The New China Rules.”
“Whether through economic pressure, political and military intimidation, espionage, or propaganda,” Auslin writes, “Beijing is actively trying to reshape the world to fit its interests, picking and choosing which Western norms it adopts and which it ignores.” Following its “peaceful rise,” during which CCP leaders denied having hegemonic ambitions, the new China is reshaping the global economy by disregarding intellectual-property protections and steadfastly prohibiting dissent from its party line. Chinese leaders routinely intimidate foreign businesses eager for access to the country’s massive domestic market, as demonstrated by the cancellation of NBA broadcasts in China after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey voiced support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
When it cannot coax foreign companies into surrendering their property, the CCP steals it. PLA cyber-theft costs U.S. businesses $400 billion a year, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The spoils accrue not only to Chinese businesses but also to the PLA, which has been the beneficiary of a slew of military technologies stolen from the U.S. China’s policy of “civil-military fusion” has undone the traditional distinction between commerce and defense, undermining the Westphalian state system at the heart of the world order.
So successful is Chinese espionage that the PLA now has the firepower to compete with the U.S. military. The final, most vivid chapter of Asia’s New Geopolitics imagines a future war between the U.S. and China. In the year 2025, an accidental collision between a Chinese frigate and a Philippine fishing boat off the Scarborough Shoal ignites a conflagration that ends with the sinking of the USS Gerald R. Ford, America’s largest and newest aircraft carrier. China’s steady fortification of the South China Sea gives it a leg up against U.S. forces, which must travel from the distant East China Sea and Indian Ocean to reach the area of hostilities. And neglect of its naval fleet leaves the U.S. to rely on aircraft carriers and manned jets rather than nimbler seacraft and unmanned drones.
Meanwhile, diplomacy falters. A mainland-friendly Taiwanese president opts for neutrality in the Sino–American Littoral War, while an increasingly anti-American Philippine public protests the American presence on its island. Losing key bases in the Asiatic Mediterranean, the U.S. effectively cedes the Western Pacific, its alliance with Japan the last vestige of its decades-long dominance in the region. Though the two sides avoid total war, China is the clear victor.
This future history would be strengthened by a more complete assessment of the new technology of war. While Auslin gives a nod to cyberwarfare, his portrayal looks much like the wars of the last century, fought with aircraft carriers and fighter jets. Assessing Asia’s new geopolitics requires grappling with the “asymmetric warfare” of the CCP. Indeed, the year 2025, when this theoretical battle takes place, coincides with the culmination of the “Made in China 2025” initiative, a program to bolster China’s capacity in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, among other dual-use technologies that will almost certainly change the landscape of war in the years to come.
Nonetheless, Auslin succeeds in his aim of reviving an older method of geopolitical thinking. The nebulous concept of “grand strategy,” espoused by a handful of éminences grises in university history departments and D.C. think tanks, has been lost on the current crop of American policymakers. But a grand strategy — one that aligns ends and means to advance the national interest — is precisely what the emerging Sino–American rivalry requires.
This article appears as “A New Grand Strategy for Asia” in the June 22, 2020, print edition of National Review.
Something to Consider
If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?
If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.