Lots of reasons to read Michael J. Totten: A Conversation with Robert D. Kaplan, but the Chinese plan to control its vital sea lanes is a big one. In this dialogue, the discussion is about Chinese support for Sri Lanka's obliteration of the Tamil Tigers and the rationale behind that support:
Kaplan:Totten and Kaplan, both indispensable. Support Totten by hitting his PayPal link and Kaplan by buying his books.
Now, why did the Chinese want Sri Lanka? Because Sri Lanka is strategically located. The main sea lines of communication between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. It’s part of China’s plan to construct a string of pearls – ports that they don’t own, but which they can use for their warships all across the Indian Ocean.
Kaplan: The West thinks of Sri Lanka as unimportant, whereas for the Chinese and the Indians it’s very important. And I consider Sri Lanka part of the new geography. It’s part of the new maritime geography, and that makes it very important.
MJT: What’s China’s ultimate objective?
Kaplan: They’re putting a lot of money into their navy, more than their army. Their ultimate objective is to project sea power, and not just in the western Pacific which makes them a great regional power, but also in the Indian Ocean which makes them a great power in total.
MJT: Do you get the sense that China is becoming more ambitious as it gets more powerful?
Kaplan: I think as their economy develops, and as they have more and more economic interests around the world, they suddenly have more national interests. As they trade more, they have more things to protect. So they develop a world view and their military expands accordingly. It’s very similar to the U.S. military expansion in the late 19th century and the early 20th century before World War I.
MJT: So you’re working on a book about the Indian Ocean.
Kaplan: Yeah. I’m deep into it. One day we’re going to wake up from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re going to see a changed world. We’re going to see a world where there are still geopolitical contests, but they’ll be between China and India. We’ll see the emergence of China on the world’s seas with less U.S. dominance. We’re going to see a more maritime world. We may live in an era of globalization, but 90 percent of all goods travel by sea in containers. It’s container shipping that allows for the whole globalization, the clothes we wear, the prices we pay for them, etc. Those who control the sea lanes are going to be crucial.
Now, we’ve seen a little of this already in the news with the piracy issue. When does piracy thrive when you read about piracy historically? It thrives when trade is thriving. Pirates are parasites. The more international trade is thriving, the more hosts are available for parasites. So piracy is an indication that things are good, in a way.
Kaplan: And we see how critical these sea lines of communication are if just a few hundred pirates can get ships to divert from using the Suez Canal and instead choosing to go around southern Africa. Which is what’s happening.
So I think we’re going to make up more of a maritime world where the rim line of the world is going to be between the Horn of Africa and the Sea of Japan with the Strait of Malacca as sort of the Fulda Gap of the 21st Century. The Fulda Gap, you know, was a valley in West Germany during the Cold War where Soviet tanks would come through if there was ever a confrontation.
Map is from JOE 2008 published by the U.S. Joint Forces Command and downloadable as a pdf here. I have modified it by adding the Chinese Navy's deployment off Somalia in its anti-piracy role (see here) where China can try out out of area operations in a relatively benign environment while observing/working with other navies (see China's "Maritime Chess'. Reportedly the Chinese force has escorted hundreds of ships (video here):
Despite bad weather, the Chinese navy's anti-piracy escort fleet has completed another escort mission to protect 13 merchant ships from Somali pirates' attack.And, all the while, gaining experience.
At 8 AM local time, the escort fleet entered a dust storm in waters west of the Gulf of Aden. Measures were taken to ensure there was safe space between the merchant ships, and smooth communication. 5 hours later, the ships safely arrived in the waters of the Bab Al-Mandab Straight, marking one more successful mission for the escort fleet. China's anti-piracy naval task force has so far safeguarded 514 ships on 72 missions.
More on China's "String of Pearls" China's Defensive Zone, China's Sea Lanes, Myanmar: Washington’s geopolitics and the Straits of Malacca, India's Look East Policy, and at links therein.
As I keep saying, sea lines of communication are vital.