The next theater of war will be the South China SeaS

Over at Foreign Policy this month, there's a terrific, smart collection of articles about the future of the world, from tomorrow's economic trends to what the next great war could be.

Robert D. Kaplan, a member of the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Policy Board, makes a fascinating case for the future of warfare moving to the South China Sea. He begins with a careful explanation of politics in that region, and why China will push to exert more control over it - and how Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam may turn to the US for aid. Though he predicts what amounts to a naval war, Kaplan sees this as encouraging. In part this is because naval warfare tends to be less bloody than land warfare (witness the land war during World War II, for example). And partly because he sees this war as less ideological than purely power-driven. Kaplan writes:

There is nothing romantic about this new front, void as it is of moral struggles. In naval conflicts, unless there is shelling onshore, there are no victims per se; nor is there a philosophical enemy to confront. Nothing on the scale of ethnic cleansing is likely to occur in this new central theater of conflict. China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury. The Chinese regime demonstrates only a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. Instead of fascism or militarism, China, along with other states in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, certainly, but not one that since the mid-19th century has been attractive to intellectuals. And even if China does become more democratic, its nationalism is likely only to increase, as even a casual survey of the views of its relatively freewheeling netizens makes clear.

We often think of nationalism as a reactionary sentiment, a relic of the 19th century. Yet it is traditional nationalism that mainly drives politics in Asia, and will continue to do so. That nationalism is leading unapologetically to the growth of militaries in the region — navies and air forces especially — to defend sovereignty and make claims for disputed natural resources. There is no philosophical allure here. It is all about the cold logic of the balance of power. To the degree that unsentimental realism, which is allied with nationalism, has a geographical home, it is the South China Sea.

Whatever moral drama does occur in East Asia will thus take the form of austere power politics of the sort that leaves many intellectuals and journalists numb. As Thucydides put it so memorably in his telling of the ancient Athenians' subjugation of the island of Melos, "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." In the 21st-century retelling, with China in Athens's role as the preeminent regional sea power, the weak will still submit — but that's it. This will be China's undeclared strategy, and the smaller countries of Southeast Asia may well bandwagon with the United States to avoid the Melians' fate. But slaughter there will be not.

The South China Sea presages a different form of conflict than the ones to which we have become accustomed. Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have been traumatized by massive, conventional land engagements on the one hand, and dirty, irregular small wars on the other. Because both kinds of war produced massive civilian casualties, war has been a subject for humanists as well as generals. But in the future we just might see a purer form of conflict, limited to the naval realm. This is a positive scenario. Conflict cannot be eliminated from the human condition altogether. A theme in Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy is that conflict, properly controlled, is more likely than rigid stability to lead to human progress. A sea crowded with warships does not contradict an era of great promise for Asia. Insecurity often breeds dynamism.

But can conflict in the South China Sea be properly controlled?

Kaplan thinks the nature of naval warfare, coupled with emerging Chinese political goals, means we've got a tentative yes to that question.

Policy issues aside, I have to admit that any war which could potentially involve piracy on the high seas intrigues me.

You must read Kaplan's whole article over at Foreign Policy - and indeed, check out their whole, incredible package of articles about the future of the world.