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).
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.
The Spanish-American War in 1898, which arose partly out of the need to control the Caribbean sea lanes, also meant the death of America's non-hegemonic exceptionalism, as it, too, acquired an empire-of-sorts. Theodore Roosevelt, who in that War led his Rough Riders in a charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, would a decade later, as a retiring president, be the ruler of Spain's former colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, the builder of the Panama Canal, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for settling a war between Russia and Japan, and the commander of a 22-battleship navy. Likewise, if China's benign and non-hegemonic view of itself becomes increasingly untenable as it eyes islands and smaller geographical features in the Pacific, it would only be following in America's footsteps.
Historian Richard H. Collin writes that, "Eliminating Europe from the New World was the cornerstone of Roosevelt's foreign policy." So will China have as a goal of grand, long-term strategy the elimination of America from Asia? Yet Roosevelt, keep in mind, set limits as to what he was willing to do in the region. To wit, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1904, stated that the United States "would interfere with them [the peoples of the Greater Caribbean] only in the last resort, and then only if it became evident that their inability or unwillingness to do justice at home and abroad had violated the rights of the United States or had invited foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations." Roosevelt's Secretary of War, Elihu Root, specifically rejected the policy of the Grover Cleveland Administration, that the United States was "practically sovereign" in the Greater Caribbean. Roosevelt’s policy was less aggressive than preventative. He wanted to prevent, as Collin writes, "a strong Germany from replacing a weak Spain" in the Caribbean, as Kaiser Wilhelm II built up his naval force in the decade prior to World War I.
Roosevelt accomplished three goals relevant to what China may yearn for today in the South and East China seas: he ejected Europe from the Caribbean, even as he moved closer to Europe politically, all the while tempering American power with a deeper understanding of the sensitivities of the peoples of Latin America. Borrowing from Roosevelt, Chinese grand strategists will want to weaken American involvement in the Pacific Basin sufficiently so as to exercise de facto hegemony over their own Asian Mediterranean, even as they maintain cordial political and economic relations with Washington, and temper their own power through a greater appreciation of the problems and peoples of Southeast Asia.
Obviously, there are great differences between the American and Asian Mediterraneans. The Caribbean states and statelets of the turn of the 20th century were rickety, unstable, and volatile affairs: not so the formidable entities around, for example, the South China Sea today, which, with the exception of the Philippines and Indonesia, are strong states that - at least in the case of Vietnam - is a potential middle-level power if it can get its economy in order. And even the Philippines and Indonesia (the latter on the outskirts of the South China Sea) are demographically massive polities whose political and economic structures, as weak as they are compared to neighboring states, are still far more developed than were those of the early 20th century Caribbean. The constant mayhem with its consequent interventions that was a feature of Greater Caribbean political life a century ago is barely a factor in the South China Sea.
And yet the glaring similarity remains: both seas are blue water extensions of continental-size states that unlock the door to world power. Domination of the South China Sea especially would certainly clear the way for pivotal Chinese air and naval influence throughout the navigable Rimland of Eurasia - the Indian and Pacific oceans both. And thus, China would become the virtual hegemon of the Indo-Pacific. That would still not make China as dominant in the Eastern Hemisphere as the United States has been in the Western Hemisphere. But, in and of itself, this would go a long way toward making China more than merely the first among equals in the Eastern Hemisphere, with political and economic energy to spare for influencing states in the Western Hemisphere, where a Hong Kong-based company is already running both ends of the Panama Canal, and another Chinese company wants to dig a second canal through Nicaragua. For in a globalized world, even the Caribbean is no longer merely an American geopolitical property.