Robert Kaplan, a contemporary popularizer of geopolitical thinking, has a new article on RealClearWorld titled “China’s Geopolitical Fallout,” wherein he maps out the potential consequences of a Chinese economic slowdown leading to political and social crisis. The winners in Kaplan’s mind are “the United States and its allies — both de facto like India and Vietnam, and de jure like Japan and Australia,” all of whom will be “in a commanding position around Eurasia’s navigable southern rimland.” But what about the Central Asian heartlands?
Kaplan spends only one paragraph discussing countries that could be considered part of Central Asia–Pakistan and Afghanistan–though this is arguably the most fascinating dynamic for analysis. Here is the paragraph in full:
If India were among the biggest winners in the event of severe Chinese internal turmoil, Pakistan would be the biggest loser. China has been Pakistan’s greatest and surest patron in recent decades, and has given Pakistan stores of infrastructure aid — highways in the north and a port in the south — without lectures about human rights and terrorism, or threats about withdrawing aid. China has balanced against India, Pakistan’s principal enemy, even as China keeps Pakistan from becoming friendless in the event of a rupture with the United States. A weakened China would leave Pakistan facing a strengthened India and a United States in a measurably better position to influence the future of Afghanistan over the next decade or so. Pakistan’s options would still be considerable, on account its geographic centrality to southern Central Asia and Afghanistan in particular. But otherwise, without a strong China, Pakistan would be lonely in a hostile world.
Pakistan, indeed, would be a big loser. Kaplan rightly acknowledges the all-weather relationships developed between Beijing and Islamabad. But Kaplan, wrongly I believe, asserts that a decline in Chinese influence will put Pakistan in a hard place because it allows India and the US more free rein in Afghanistan. This is misleading. The situation is a lot more messy than Kaplan’s black-and-white scenario. With Beijing in the picture, the US actually has more options in Central Asia because Beijing’s overarching goal in the region is stability and economic development, which aligns well with Washington’s agenda.
First, a decline in Chinese power will not limit Pakistan’s clout in Afghanistan. By removing China from the scene, the US will have even less, not more, leverage over Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. Pakistan may in fact be even more emboldened to do as it pleases. Beijing has been a positive proponent of Pakistan cracking down on terrorist elements within its borders, mainly because it fears Uyghurs crossing into Pakistan for training and bringing the jihadist movement back to Xinjiang. Beijing naturally also wants to see a strong central government in Afghanistan that can control its borders, a sliver of which abuts Xinjiang.
Second, Washington has already committed to a pullout from Afghanistan in 2014. Even if the “United States [is] in a measurably better position to influence the future of Afghanistan over the next decade or so,” would she actually want to do so? The US has lost the popular mandate of the American people to have deep commitments in Afghanistan. But with China as a (by no means perfect) partner with roughly similar goals, the United States can continue to indirectly work toward a stable Afghanistan. In a sentence, a resilient China committed to Central Asian development is more good news than bad news for Washington.
Admittedly, Kaplan doesn’t see a Chinese downfall and the resulting scenarios laid out in his article actually occurring. Even if economic slowdown results in domestic unrest, Kaplan predicts a tumultuous period of consolidation and readjustment within China, with China’s strategic and military planners able to weather the storm with adjustments of their own for the long term. This is a reasonable prediction. The Chinese Communist Party has proven incredibly resilient despite significant challenges to political legitimacy.
So what is the whole point of such an exercise in geopolitical speculation? Kaplan remains ambiguous about exactly the point of his article. He concludes with a broader point about the importance of “internal conditions of states themselves” as opposed to purely external geopolitical concerns, but this seems oddly disjointed from the rest of the piece, which predominantly features future projections of geopolitical power. I would argue that such an exercise promotes an understanding of where US strategic concerns lie.
In the “southern rimland,” the United States has many allies, as Kaplan notes, and stands to potentially “win” from a Chinese decline (speaking in generalities, knowing that these things are never zero-sum games). But in Central Asia, Washington would not “win” in a similar scenario. The drawdown of Chinese investments would be a major blow to development in the region. A knock against the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is fodder for Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Beijing, as a neutral party in many Central Asian disputes, has potential to play stabilizer, which is good news for US policymakers.
Using Kaplan’s geopolitical lens, we might begin to think that US-China competition is a settled arrangement. But what if Xi Jinping’s “new type of great power relationship” can begin in Central Asia with US-China cooperation?