The following interview with Robert Kaplan [1], a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New Ameri-can Security, was carried out on June 22, 2012 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main topic of the interview was the U.S. pivot to Asia. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.

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U.S. Pivot to Asia

Do you see the US as a Pacific nation?

Yes, the United States has been a Pacific nation since the end of the 19th century when it ejected Spain from the Philippines and that became so far 113 years of deep American involvement in the Pacific region. There was the Philippine War which lasted into 1910 or so, the building up of the Philippine state by the United States, there was WWII, there was Vietnam, there was the domination of the Western Pacific battle space throughout the Cold War until today. [2]

Is the new U.S. pivot to Asia a direct answer to the rise of China?

The United States is a global power and since WWII and the Cold War the United States has been both an Atlantic and a Pacific nation. It is increasingly becoming a Pacific and an Indian Ocean nation. The Atlantic has far fewer security problems than the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean so the United States is increasingly trying to disperse forces all the way from the Horn of Africa to the Sea of Japan.

Do you consider the U.S. defense strategy to be a good measure to answer for example the naval buildup in China?

I think the U.S. defense strategy basically is an attempt to show allies in the Western Pacific that the U.S. is not deserting the Western Pacific. It is not going to be distracted by the Middle East and will retain signifi-cant presence as China builds up its forces in the region.

You wrote about the geography of China. [3] Do you see it more as an advantage or a disadvantage?

It’s both. Here is how it’s an advantage: China’s land borders are more secure than they have been in 150 years. China is going to expand its commercial influence into the Russian Far East, into former Soviet Cen-tral Asia, into Southeast Asia. On the other hand, inside China on the periphery, you have Tibetan, Uighur and Inner Mongolian minorities spread out along scarce plateau areas. China is somewhat of an island of Han culture in the central and eastern coastal areas of China. So China is vulnerable on the inside of its own borders on its periphery, even as it has significant possibilities to expand its commercial influence beyond the periphery.

As China is far more concentrating on asymmetric means while the U.S. is more focusing on power projection, do you think there would be a likelihood that the U.S. shifts towards more asymmetric means, especially because of defense cuts?

Defense cuts are not going to affect the Pacific that much because the U.S. has made a commitment to keep forces at their present level, maybe even to increase them in the Western Pacific. This decision was taken by a liberal democratic White House, so if there were to be a conservative Republican White House the policy would even be stronger rather than weaker.
Asymmetric means are always a problem. The history of warfare is the history of asymmetry in many ways. So China will increasingly look for creative means to carve out a multipolar space in the Western Pacific so it’s to supersede an era of U.S. unipolar dominance.

Are you of the opinion that the relationship between the U.S. and China could develop into some kind of second Cold War?

Here is how I would put it: The U.S.-China relationship is very multi-facetted, there is so much trade be-tween the two countries – the economies of both countries are very interlinked – it is very complex and not like the U.S. and the Soviet Union. However, this relationship will have its soft sides, meaning the eco-nomic relationship and will also have its hard sides, meaning naval competition. So it will be unlike any other relationship going forward that we’ve seen in world history. It will be very unique. However, there will be significant naval competition which may take on a kind of Cold War aura.

The Chinese often argue that their naval buildup is for humanitarian reasons or just to secure the sea lines. Do you think that this is the only reason or do you believe that it is out of military compe-tition?

First of all, securing sea lines of communication is humanitarian because it protects world trade and there-fore prosperity. The answer is both. Both countries want to have safe and secure sea lines of communica-tion but both countries are also in competition with each other, even though that neither would admit it.

Thank you very much for the interview.
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[1] More about Robert Kaplan at: http://www.robertdkaplan.com/index.htm.
[2] More ressources and background information about the U.S. history in the Pacific from University of Washington: http://guides.lib.washington.edu/content.php?pid=64223&sid=504805.
[3] Kaplan’s article on the implications geography has on China’s future can be found at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66205/robert-d-kaplan/the-geography-of-chinese-power.

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