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The Contest to Control the Asian Mediterranean
Historian Michael Auslin says decades of wishful thinking and missed opportunities require a new emphasis on geostrategy
By Michael Puttré
Whether we like it or not, America is already locked in a global competition with China. So says Michael Auslin, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, adding that the US needs to rediscover geostrategy if it is going to meet this challenge. “We need to think strategically from the ground up,” he says.
Decades of US engagement has helped raise China to world power status without, as was hoped, moderating its behavior at home or abroad. Auslin points out that China has become the world’s largest export economy and is the largest, second-largest, or third-largest trading partner of nearly every other country. In geopolitical terms, China’s integration into the global economic system means it cannot be isolated or contained the way the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.
Moreover, China’s geostrategic vision of its place in the world demands that it be the undisputed power in the world’s most important economic region: the Indo-Pacific. The region’s epicenter is the South China Sea, which links the Indian Ocean with the Western Pacific and serves as a conduit through which nearly 70 percent of global trade passes.
Auslin says the US and its allies must be willing and able to assert their power in the Indo-Pacific or else acquiesce to China’s primacy. In his latest book, Asia’s New Geopolitics (Hoover Institution Press, 2020), Auslin says a good first step is for the US and its allies to match China’s appreciation of how important it is to control East Asia’s “inner seas.”
While the US was acutely aware of the geographic aspects of the challenge posed by the Soviet Union in the Cold War, Auslin says the US is behind the curve with its thinking about China. It wasn’t until February 2016 when Adm. Harry Harris, then the head of US Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he believed China was seeking “hegemony” in East Asia. That statement—with its loaded term—signaled that a radical rethinking of US-China relations was underway, at least within the corridors of the Pentagon, which renamed the regional combatant command US Indo-Pacific Command in 2018.
The following year, the Department of Defense published the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which identified the region as the nation’s area of priority and China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the singular threat to the current security structure the US and its allies have established there since 1945. Auslin says that if it is taking longer for US political, corporate, and public opinion leaders to reach the military’s level of alarm, it is mainly because of a deep-seated belief that a rising China would become a stake-holding partner in the existing world order. The realization that China is embarked on a course to supplant that order with its own is a bitter disappointment.
The indulgent hegemon
“As the global hegemon since World War ll, and certainly since the end of the Cold War—the Soviet Union was never a cultural or economic hegemon—we came to believe in the end of history thesis,” Auslin says. This modern version of this thesis was first and most famously articulated in Francis Fukuyama’s influential 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which argues that the downfall of the Soviet Union removed the last significant challenge to Western liberal democracy and a market-centric global economy. “We thought we no longer had to take great power challenges into account.”
According to Auslin, Western leaders dismissed the idea that any power would really challenge what became known as the Washington consensus view of trade and monetary policies intended to integrate developing economies into the American-led global system. Furthermore, it has been the express policy of the US since the Nixon administration to bring China into that system. Auslin says this multi-administration, multi-generation effort has caused its leaders and advocates to effectively turn a blind eye to the CCP’s worst abuses of power and provocations, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the ongoing crackdown in Hong Kong, the building of artificial islands in disputed waters of the South China Sea, rampant, officially sanctioned hacking of Western computer networks, and the theft of US intellectual property with an estimated value in excess of $225 billion per year.
“As the hegemon, we were the most invested in this system and therefore the most risk averse,” Auslin says. “We did not want to see the system changed in any way. We thought that whatever we could do to strengthen the system, such as bringing in the world’s most populous nation, would be good for the system and therefore good for us.”
Even if China never became a democracy, the hope was that it would liberalize. The idea was that China eventually would become, by virtue of its strength and the respect given it, a defender and upholder of the system in which it would attain a significant stake.
“Instead, what we’ve seen is that China used the system to its own advantage, and we didn’t take it seriously enough to challenge it,” Auslin says. “There was a general hubris in that we simply felt that we were impregnable in certain ways. How could China challenge us? It is so far behind. We didn’t see those challenges until they were simply unavoidable.”
Rather than defending and upholding the existing system, the CCP used the wealth and influence it generated in that system to develop a rival system—of which the One Belt One Road initiative is a key component—to suit its own goal. “One Belt One Road is very much a geopolitical strategy,” Auslin says. “The policy has the goal of changing the way states interact across distances so as to alter the flow of resources and to create different sorts of linkages than the current world order supports.”
Auslin points out that this in itself is not unusual or unexpected. China wants what every power wants: strategic space and the freedom to act within that strategic space. However, since the CCP’s ultimate goal is its own survival, it is willing to build a China-centric world order where its rules prevail over weakened and dependent rivals in the West. Thanks to decades of unhindered economic development and wealth accumulation under a global system administered and protected by those rivals, it now has the resources to make its desired worldview a reality.
“One thing we failed to do, which makes it much harder today than it could have been, is that we precisely failed in any way to try to shape China’s choices and its policies and its actions,” Auslin says. “Instead, what we did was strengthen the Chinese Communist Party. We strengthened the state, which strengthened the military.”
Without delving too deeply into the CCP’s motives, it is clear that the challenge is here. Moreover, the challenge incorporates a broad array of overt and covert actions that leave many in doubt that such threats even exist. This is by design. Unfortunately, as Auslin notes, US policymakers have a tendency to move from one issue or crisis at a time to another in serial fashion.
“Washington is thus taken by surprise each time a new challenge to the status quo appears,” he writes in Asia’s New Geopolitics. “Effectively responding to China’s challenge requires adopting a larger geostrategic picture of the entire Indo-Pacific region and America’s position in it.”
A New ‘Middle Sea’
To adapt to the new geopolitics in Asia, US planners must come to grips with the geography of the so-called inner seas of Asia encompassing the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Malacca Strait, and all the lands they wash. This is a much more complex environment that the US and its NATO allies faced in the European Theater of the Cold War.
“The continental offshoot of Europe from the Eurasian land mass enables you to draw a line through it and say: This is your side and this is our side,” Auslin observes. Asia is very different. “It’s oceanic, it’s littoral, its archipelagic, and it’s continental. It just doesn’t break down easily.”
Nevertheless, the most significant military challenges China poses are almost certainly present in this very complex region. The military strategists of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its attending navy and air force have as their goal control of the so-called first and second island chains, which include the archipelagos forming the eastern borders of the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea in the first case, and the Western Pacific out to Guam in the second. Control, in this case, means the ability to deny US and allied forces access to these areas, leaving Chinese forces free to pursue any objectives the CCP desires, such as the conquest of Taiwan.
In response, Auslin says, the US should see the inner seas bordering as something akin to an “Asian Mediterranean.” Just as the Allies in WW2 were loath to cede any portion of the Mediterranean Sea—from Gibraltar to Suez—to the Axis, so the US should oppose China’s effort to control these inner seas. In Asia’s New Geopolitics, Auslin writes:
US Indo-Pacific Command must ensure its planning and operations seamlessly cover the entire space and can maintain control when called upon, particularly at strategic checkpoints. The ability to overwhelmingly target Chinese ships in the early stages of a conflict, operate in the face of cyberattacks, and maintain control of the skies throughout the inner sea area is vital. This will help ensure that the Pentagon’s goal of “preparedness” described in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report is not merely a checklist of to-do items, but is an approach leading to the ability to act in a holistic fashion throughout Asia’s littorals.
This is a monumental task, both in terms of military resources and diplomatic commitment. However, as noted earlier, the US has let the opportunity to manage China’s rise from a position of overwhelming strength slip away. The new reality is that a focused CCP with an increasingly well-equipped military at its disposal is challenging the existing world order. The Asian Mediterranean will very likely be the most important early theater of that confrontation.
As Adm. Harris told US lawmakers during his testimony about China militarizing the South China Sea, "You'd have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise."