Beijing's Caribbean Logic

Why China acts the way it does in the Pacific Basin.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Robert Kaplan’s latest book Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (copyright 2014 by Robert D. Kaplan; published by Random House). Mr. Kaplan will be appearing at the Center for a New American Security to discuss his work on March 25, 2014.

American policymakers bristle at China’s gunboat aggression against Japan in the East China Sea and against countries like Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. But to understand what China really wants, they need to understand their own history better: particularly America’s diplomatic and military history in the Caribbean. The Caribbean may now suggest a geopolitically obscure place useful only for winter vacations, but for generations of Washington foreign policy professionals in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the region of choice to advance careers – the equivalent of the Middle East today.

The Greater Caribbean (including the Gulf of Mexico) is roughly the size of the South China Sea - 1,500 miles in one direction and 1,000 miles in the other. Whereas the South China Sea can be dubbed the Asian Mediterranean because of its centrality to the Indo-Pacific world, the Greater Caribbean can be dubbed the American Mediterranean because of its centrality to the whole Western Hemisphere. For as the mid-20th century Dutch-American strategist, Nicholas J. Spykman, observed, the basic geographical truth of the Western Hemisphere is that the division within it is not between North America and South America, but between the area north of the Amazon jungle and the area south of it. Colombia and Venezuela, as well as the Guianas, although they are on the northern coast of South America, are functionally part of North America and the American Mediterranean. So once the United States came to dominate the American Mediterranean, that is, the Greater Caribbean, and separated as it is from the southern cone of South America by yawning distance and a wide belt of tropical forest, the United States had few challengers in its own hemisphere. The domination of the Greater Caribbean, by providing domination of the Western Hemisphere, left America with resources to spare for influencing the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. First the Greater Caribbean, next the world, in other words: such was the history of the United States in the 20th century with its two world wars.

So as one Chinese army senior colonel asked me: “Why should we act any differently in the South China Sea than you acted in the Caribbean?” After all, they are both in geographers’ terms marginal seas that are extensions of continental-sized nations: China and the United States. China sees the South China Sea (and the East China Sea, for that matter) as blue national soil. And this blue national soil is adjacent to China and far away from America; just as the Caribbean was adjacent to America and far from the European powers of the day.

But the United States did not just bully its way into the Caribbean, just as China is not now simply bullying its way into the South and East China seas. America’s policy was – and China’s approach is – far more subtle. Indeed, by the early 19th century already, Latin America had largely become free of European rule, and so President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams were not in favor of pushing the Europeans out, but in preventing their return. The Monroe Administration wanted, in the words of Naval War College Professor James R. Holmes, "to freeze the status quo." Domination of the Greater Caribbean by America meant neither isolationism, nor the subjugation of local peoples, nor the abjuration of international cooperation. In fact, while the Monroe Doctrine was being promulgated, the U. S. Navy was working with Great Britain's Royal Navy to police the Caribbean, in a joint effort to end the slave trade. The Monroe Doctrine was far more nuanced than commonly supposed.

Of all the European powers, the British, with the world's greatest navy and bases in Jamaica, Trinidad, British Guiana, British Honduras, and the Lesser Antilles, was - like the U. S. Navy today in the South and East China seas - best positioned to challenge the United States in the Caribbean at the turn of the 20th century. But the British did not challenge the Americans, because they knew the latter would fight hard to defend the maritime extension of their own North American continent. (For the same reason, the United States must now be careful of openly challenging China in the Pacific Basin.) Moreover, while the British were a key economic and military factor in the Caribbean, by 1917 U. S. economic influence over the Caribbean, borne of geographical proximity and a burgeoning American economy, surpassed that of Britain - just as China is coming to surpass the influence of the United States in East Asia.