November 15, 2010 — President Obama has insisted that his 10-day Asian journey is all about jobs: “The primary purpose is to ... open up markets so that we can sell in Asia, in some of the fastest-growing markets in the world, and we can create jobs here in the United States of America.” But this recasting of the agenda, a late reaction to the midterm election, obscured the vital geopolitical importance of the trip.
In fact, the president has been confronting a new strategic map that lies beyond our messy and diversionary land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In geographical terms, two of the countries on the itinerary, India and Indonesia, are in the same increasingly pivotal region: the southern coastal areas, or “rimland” of Eurasia, which is emerging as the world’s hydrocarbon interstate, uniting energy-rich Arabia and Iran with the growing economies of the Pacific.
Gone today are the artificial divisions of cold-war-era studies: now the “Middle East,” “South Asia,” “Southeast Asia” and “East Asia” are part of a single organic continuum. In geopolitical terms, the president’s visits in all four countries are about one challenge: the rise of China on land and sea.
India is increasingly feeling hemmed in by China’s military might. It lies within the arc of operations of Chinese fighter jets based in Tibet. China is building or developing large ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma, and providing all these Indian Ocean countries with significant military and economic aid.
Although India and China fought a border war in the early 1960s, they have never really been rivals, separated as they are by the Himalayas. But the shrinkage of distance thanks to globalism and advances of military technology has spawned a rivalry that is defining the new Eurasia.
Indeed, it is India’s emergence as a great Eurasian power that constitutes the best piece of news for American strategists since the end of the cold war. Merely by rising without any formal alliance with Washington, democratic India balances statist China. Even closer links between the United States and India would be better — and no doubt factored into Mr. Obama’s talk of backing India for a seat on the United Nations Security Council — but are made complex by our chaotic land wars.
While President Obama would like to withdraw from Afghanistan, Indian leaders remain afraid he will do precisely that. To Indians, Afghanistan is not a distant Central Asian country: it is historically part of the subcontinent. Empires as distant as the Harappans in the fourth millennium B.C. and as recent as the Mughals in the early modern era made Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India part of the same polity. Indian elites carry this history in their bones.
India wants a relatively benign and non-fundamentalist Afghanistan as a way of limiting Pakistan’s influence in the region. (That’s why India supported the Soviet-puppet Afghan leaders in the 1980s against the C.I.A.-backed mujahedeen.)
Were the United States to withdraw precipitously, India would understandably look to Iran, Russia and perhaps China as allies in a tacit effort to contain Pakistan. Thus we could lose the prospect of a de facto pro-American India to balance the military and economic rise of China.
President Obama must weigh this fact against the knowledge that every year the war in Afghanistan costs our military the equivalent of building several aircraft-carrier strike groups that could be used to increase our presence and to contain the expansion of the Chinese Navy in the Western Pacific, something that would assuage the concerns of our allies there. Of course, the president would rather use the savings to pay down the deficit; nonetheless, the Navy and the influence in Eurasia that it can provide have clearly been the loser in these land wars.
With Indonesia, Mr. Obama faces a similarly tricky challenge. Well over 200 million of Indonesia’s 240 million inhabitants are Muslims. Because the bearers of Islam there were sea-borne merchants, and thus heralds of a cosmopolitan interpretation of the faith that fit well with indigenous Javanese culture, Islam in Indonesia (and throughout the South Seas) has lacked the austere ideological edge found in the Middle East.
Today, however, the advent of global communications, along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the dispatch of Wahhabi clerics from the Persian Gulf to the Far East, has radicalized many Indonesians. This puts the nation’s leaders in a bind: on the one hand, they want a robust American naval presence to counterbalance China, which is Indonesia’s largest trading partner; on the other, they fear angering the wider Islamic world if they make closer ties to Washington too public.
Indonesia, whose archipelago is as vast as the continental United States is wide, has only two submarines; China has dozens. While China’s materialistic culture may soften the influence of political Islam in Southeast Asia, China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama’s mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East.
Indonesia’s Muslim democracy, a dozen years after the fall of Suharto, boasts vigor and moderation. And combined with Indonesia’s immense population, it augurs the emergence of a sort of “second India” in the Eurasian rimland, strategically located on the Strait of Malacca, the shipping superhighway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Since the art of preparing for a multipolar world in military as well as economic terms is to gain the support of like-minded others, the Obama administration needs to use the energy generated by the president’s visit in order to adopt Indonesia as its new favorite country, just as India was adopted by the George W. Bush administration to substantial effect.
As for Japan and South Korea, while China remains their biggest trading partner, both fear Beijing’s growing navy and the “soft power” it projects in the Pacific. This is largely why these countries have let Washington maintain a military presence on their soil and the United States has pushed them to expand their own forces.
Yet the Japanese and South Korean publics are increasingly restive about the American military bases. Thus our strategic future in the region is not these huge cold-war-type bases with their fast-food restaurants and shopping malls; they inevitably become political millstones. Rather, we need discreet operating locations, under local sovereignty, that the Pentagon helps to maintain. It’s a strategy that will work only if such operations don’t raise the ire of the local populations and press, meaning that our public diplomacy will have to be effective and unceasing.
Indeed, Washington has been making great strides on the public-diplomacy front: a principal benefit of having special envoys to Israel and the Palestinian territories and to Afghanistan and Pakistan is that it has freed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make more high-profile trips to East and South Asia, where she has been, in effect, competing all the while with China on the public stage. The president’s trip is one culmination of this effort.
THE 20th century saw great, land-centric Army deployments to Europe. George W. Bush unwittingly continued this tendency with great, land-centric deployments to the Middle East, where we became ensnared in intra-Islamic conflict. As President Obama develops his grand strategy for Eurasia, the great step forward would be creating a smaller footprint on land and a bigger one at sea. Navies are very conducive to projecting soft power: they make port visits and guard the global commons, whereas armies invade.
Easing India’s fears about Chinese-built ports in the Indian Ocean as well as Indonesia and its neighbors’ worries about Chinese designs in the South China Sea and Japan and South Korea’s about China’s goal of dominating the islands of the Western Pacific is in each case a matter of warships, not ground troops.
As the Yale geostrategist Nicholas J. Spykman wrote in 1942, because America had no rivals in the Western Hemisphere, it had the “power to spare for activities outside the New World,” like determining the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. And in Eurasia, Spykman went on, the maritime rimland is pivotal, because it is essential to the supercontinent’s contact with the outside world. Let’s hope that President Obama’s visits to key states of coastal Asia will prove Spykman’s theory correct.
Robert D. Kaplan, the author of “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power,” is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a correspondent for The Atlantic.Related: