The Real “Humanist Dilemma” in the Asia-Pacific: Striking a Balance between Political Realism and Liberal Idealism

In Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Robert D. Kaplan (2014) makes the claim that conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, between a rising China and its increasingly guarded neighbors, will spell the end of the post-World War II stability in the Asia-Pacific. Referencing John J. Mearsheimer’s belief in the “stopping power of water,” Kaplan (2014) suggests that the particular geography of the Asia-Pacific “will foster the growth of navies, which, while … not as worrisome as the growth of armies in continental Europe at the beginning of the last century,” may provoke “‘routinized’ close encounters between warships of different nations at sea, creating an embryonic risk of armed conflict.” (p. 7, 11) Kaplan (2014) further adds that this risk will only intensify as Asia’s collective energy consumption soars; as countries grapple over increasingly scarce energy resources, he says, their conflicting claims over the resource-rich littoral states of the South China Sea must gain in precedence, leading to a heightened state of military preparedness in the region.

In contemplating the nature of this forthcoming struggle against China, as well as the U.S.’s role and responsibility in it, Kaplan (2014) demonstrates his steadfast allegiance to the school of thought known as political realism or realpolitik, which has, together with its Cold War-era successor neorealism, dominated U.S. foreign policy from time to time since the collapse of liberal idealism in the political turmoil that succeeded the abortive establishment of the League of Nations.

Kaplan (2014) writes, “The separation of geopolitics from human rights issues, which were conjoined in the twentieth century in Europe, plus the degree of abstraction that surrounds the naval domain in any case, will help make the South China Sea the realm of policy and defense analysts, rather than of the intellectuals and media elite. Realism, which is consciously amoral, focused as it is on interests rather than on values in a debased world, will therefore triumph.” (p. 16-17)

Kaplan (2014) attempts to paint a fuller picture of what he calls this “humanist dilemma,” adding, “[W]hile there will be victims, there will be no villains, except of course for Mother Nature. And without villains, moral choice that distinguishes between good and evil cannot operate, meaning that in a philosophical sense there will be comparatively little drama. The moral drama that does occur will take the form of austere power politics … [Therefore] in the future we just might see a purer form of conflict (at least in East Asia), limited to the naval realm … like the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, but without the prospect of land warfare.” (p. 17-18)

Kaplan (2014) concludes: “This is a positive scenario. For conflict cannot be eliminated from the human condition. A theme in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is that conflict, properly controlled, is more likely to lead to human progress than rigid stability. A sea crowded with warships does not contradict an era of great human progress for Asia.” (p. 18)

Kaplan (2014) spends the next 150 or so pages contemplating whether or not the impending conflict in the South China Sea can be controlled––and ends on an ambivalent note. He proposes that, though China’s neighbors have resigned themselves to simultaneously confronting and appeasing an increasingly forceful China, equally conceivable is the notion of “a comparatively weaker China that, coupled with a more decentralized Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia, might reignite such problems as piracy and refugee flows, even as the U.S. Navy and Air Force retain their relative regional dominance.” (p. 191)

However, my goal here is not to weigh the likelihood of war in the Asia-Pacific (which Kaplan [2014] himself does in supreme fashion). Rather, it is to express my concern with a certain assumption on which his treatise, and indeed U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis China, implicitly rests: that, in view of the normative belief that the U.S.’s political, economic and military interests around the world must never be compromised, the U.S. should comport itself in the knowledge that China is a firm proponent and practitioner of the realist model of international relations, and therefore that the U.S.’s only sensible course of action is a return to the cut-throat, zero-sum politics of containment.

To be sure, from a realist perspective, Kaplan’s (2014) analysis is not unacceptable. Although he purports to regret the dismal state of U.S.-China relations, bemoaning that it “would be healthier for the American-Chinese relationship … if Asian states themselves helped balance against rising Chinese military power, rather than relying overwhelmingly on the United States” (p. 174), Kaplan (2014) maintains that such thinking is wishful, having witnessed first-hand the vulnerability of China’s neighbors during his frequent trips to the Indo-Pacific (a new term that he says reflects the realities of globalization in the region).

If the U.S. were to allow China free run of the Asia-Pacific, Washington and Beijing might enjoy closer ties, with luck renewing a once-robust symbiotic economic relationship christened “Chimerica” by historian Niall Ferguson and economist Moritz Schularick, or perhaps building on an unexpected yet much-welcome bilateral climate treaty signed last November. However, as Kaplan (2014) posits throughout his book, a tempered U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific is destined to result in the gradual extension of China’s borders to the U-shaped cow’s tongue, a nine-dashed line encompassing virtually the entire South China Sea; Chinese analysts say the cow’s tongue has historical precedence and therefore substantiates Beijing’s claims of ownership over the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, portions of the Natuna Islands and the Gulf of Tonkin, and various other maritime zones in the region. China’s encroachment into territory that one or more of its neighbors––including Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam––contest is theirs, would, in upsetting the balance of the region, in due course disrupt the rest of the world. Therefore, while Kaplan (2014) would prefer if the U.S. did not have to bear the crushing financial burden of allowing an uninterrupted flow of its military resources to China’s neighbors, the nature of today’s globalized world, where nations and regions are necessarily interdependent, does not permit a relaxation of U.S. foreign policy in Asia.

At the same time, U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis China cannot be over-reliant on the uninspired notion that the only way to deal with an enemy is through the “adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of [the enemy’s] policy.” (Kennan, 1947, sec. 3, para. 1) As discordant as this containment policy made exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, any attempt on the part of the U.S. to curb China’s expansionist tendencies cannot but bode ill for one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.

This isn’t to say that the U.S. has failed entirely to discard its Cold War-era tactics. As Tsuneo Watanabe (2014), a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation (an independent, not-for-profit think tank), says, Washington has for the most part never looked back since reengaging with Beijing a half-century ago: “With the 1972 visit to China, Nixon and Kissinger initiated a shift from an ideology-led containment policy paradigm to a pragmatism-led engagement policy paradigm. U.S. policy toward China has since remained within the engagement paradigm, although there have been occasional subtle swings.” (para. 3)

Yet here I would argue that the U.S.’s retrogressions to containment, though according to Watanabe (2014) few and far between, are caustic enough that they hinder genuine progress between the two countries.

Consider the U.S. and China’s tense relations over environmental reform. Shannon Tiezzi (2013), writing for The Diplomat, suggests that Washington’s political realism––its refusal to compromise its own interests at the expense of another country, least of all China––is partly responsible for the stalled international climate negotiations: “The United States has always been reluctant to accept drastic emissions cuts. Recently, this foot-dragging has been more and more tied to the United States’ economic rivalry with China––U.S. politicians are unwilling to commit to emissions cuts that would not apply equally to China, fearing that would put the United States at a disadvantage economically.” (para. 6) Last November’s climate deal (mentioned above) is a step in the right direction, as it suggests a sincerity on the part of the U.S. (or, rather, the Obama administration) to embrace a more idealistic agenda with respect to China.

But it isn’t enough. The containment policy paradigm remains very much a staple of U.S. foreign policy. Its contemporary relevance is discerned in the Republican Party’s unified opposition to the U.S.-China climate deal (which, granted, may be attributed to an unrestrained partisan dislike of President Obama). It is also distinguished in the critical and commercial acclaim of Kaplan’s (2014) latest book, in which, as I hope I’ve indicated above, he expresses his support of––or his resignation to the inevitability of––a realpolitik stratagem vis-à-vis China. Indeed, Kaplan’s (2014) current status as one of America’s top foreign policy thinkers reflects the great influence that his hard-headed conception of geopolitics and fierce advocacy of ‘us-them’ realism has over the levers of power in Washington.

Kaplan, R. (2014). Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. New York, NY: Random House.
Kennan, G. (1947, July). The Sources of Soviet Conduct. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved February 16, 2015, from
Tiezzi, S. (2013, November 26). The US and China Play Chicken Over Climate Change: U.S.-China cooperation on climate change could literally save the world––so why aren’t they cooperating? The Diplomat. Retrieved February 15, 2015, from
Watanabe, T. (2014, January 31). US Engagement Policy toward China (2): Realism, Liberalism, and Pragmatism. The Tokyo Foundation. Retrieved February 16, 2015, from

Copyright © 2015 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on February 17, 2015, in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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