Recently, China announced that it is considering an offer by the Seychelles to use its ports for resupplying naval vessels. Meanwhile, India is believed to be planning a cooperative effort with Vietnam on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. In the twelfth installment of its China-South Asia Dialogues seminar series, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center hosted Robert B. Kaplan of the Center for a New American Security and Chinese and Indian experts to discuss strategic crossover and policy shifts by China, India, and the United States in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Sea Lines of Communication

According to Kaplan, safe and secure sea lines of communication are integral to globalization. Ninety percent of the world’s commercial goods travel by sea and the Indian Ocean’s  has become the “world’s global energy interstate,” he argued. So while the West tends to view the Middle East and East Asia as distinct regions, Kaplan stressed the need to regard them as part of a fluid and connected Eurasia.

  • Expanding Footprint: Kaplan noted that China and other Asian nations are strengthening their naval footprint. He argued that the focus on aircraft carrier capabilities is misplaced. Instead, China and India’s pursuit of nuclear submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles has greater implications for the conventional and strategic security of both countries.
  • Securing Transit: Given China’s strong dependence on the flow of goods and resources that traverses the Indian Ocean and crosses the Malacca Straits, its maritime relationship with India is one of the most central and yet most often overlooked aspect of bilateral ties, explained Kaplan. He cited continued instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan as hindering construction of energy pipelines across the continent. As such, the Indian Ocean’s location is crucial to growth, proving that “geography still matters.”
  • Defining Strategy: One of the Chinese experts asked Kaplan whether he thought China has a grand strategy when it comes to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Kaplan responded that most countries do not possess “grand strategies,” yet China could be said to have a “two-ocean strategy” in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Within this approach, questions remain as to whether China will use its commercial ports for military purposes, he added.

U.S. Shift to Asia-Pacific

Recent statements by U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declaring a shift of national security focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, highlight the growing importance of this region as the locus of global economic routes.

  • Indo-Pacific Strategy: Kaplan described U.S. increased attention to the Asia-Pacific as a natural phenomenon spanning into the Indian Ocean. While this makes Beijing “nervous,” Kaplan explained that the United States is simply undertaking an approach that was originally intended to follow the Cold War. Since former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice went a year without visiting Asia, the Obama administration seeks to send a message that it is not ignoring the region, he added.
  • Strategy vs. Concept: The U.S. shift to the Asia-Pacific is not a “strategy,” explained Kaplan, but rather a “concept.” Kaplan claimed the only truly viable strategy for the future of the Asia-Pacific is a concert of naval powers cooperating on regional security. As one example, when a Chinese participant asked how U.S. and Indian cooperation with Vietnam would impact the region, Kaplan maintained that Vietnam has an interest in checking China, but at the same time any military cooperation would be unlikely to constitute a formal alliance.
    • Plateau and Rise: There has been much discussion of U.S. decline, argued Kaplan, yet it is more likely to be facing a “plateau.” Kaplan explained that the United States would be unlikely to be able to maintain the cost of “hegemony,” leading to decreases in investments into its armed forces. One Chinese expert responded that the United States is in a position of strength, allowing it to easily shift its policies and strategies. By contrast, he asserted that while China has “the body of an empire, it lacks the soul of one.”

India-China-U.S. Presence

Kaplan asserted that Americans have become uncomfortable with hegemony and have begun to rely more heavily on U.S. allies for support in order to maintain regional security, including in protecting waterways. Yet Kaplan also noted that as Asia’s naval forces increase, the seas will become more congested, increasing the chances for miscalculation.

  • Increased Tension: Kaplan predicted that Sino-U.S. tension would increase as each asserts its presence in the Asia-Pacific. If faced with this trend, India’s response would be vital to regional security and to maintaining a balance of power. A Chinese analyst characterized Indian strategy as desiring, but incapable of, dominating the Indian Ocean. He argued that the India-China rivalry is likely to continue to develop.
  • International Law: Saalman asked how tensions might best be mitigated and adjudicated, either through existing international law or the creation of a new maritime mechanism. Kaplan responded that while the United States has not ratified the United Nations Conventional Law of the Sea, it recognizes and upholds most of its precepts. He added that solving maritime disputes through legal means would require stronger regional forums that cede some sovereignty. However, Kaplan argued that “nationalism is alive in Asia” and frequently gets in the way of global norms.
  • Peaceful Rise: One of the Chinese experts stated that China’s diplomatic strategy of peaceful development shows that it will not seek hegemony or expansionism. Kaplan replied that commercial reasons have historically drawn nations out to sea, as in the case of the British East India Company. He added that while countries claim altruistic or financial motives for empires, they often do not end up as they originally intended.

Discussants: Zou Yunhua, Ma Jiali, Li Li, Zhu Feng, Yang Danzhi, Ren Jingjing, Zhong Zhong, Chen Zonghai, Lou Chunhao, Mao Jikang, Binod Singh, Zhou Shuai, Lin Yunzhi, Jiang Yakun, Ines Arlunno, Sugasini Kandiah