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Balancing and Bandwagoning


Robert Kaplan says all manner of silly things, but because he says them in important places, we’re supposed to listen:

He or she who sits in Delhi with his back to Muslim Central Asia must still worry about unrest up on the plateaus to the northwest. The United States will draw down its troops one day in Afghanistan, but India will still have to live with the results, and therefore remain intimately engaged. The quickest way to undermine U.S.-India relations is for the United States to withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan. In the process of leaving behind an anarchic and radicalized society, which in and of itself is contrary to India’s interests, such a withdrawal would signal to Indian policy elites that the United States is surely a declining power on which they cannot depend. Detente with China might then seem to be in India’s interest. After all, China wants a stable Afghanistan for trade routes; India, for security. Because of India’s history and geography, an American failure in Afghanistan bodes ill for our bilateral relationship with New Delhi. Put simply, if the United States deserts Afghanistan, it deserts India.

Indeed, India is quietly testing the United States in Afghanistan perhaps to the same intense degree as Israel is very publicly testing the United States in regards to a nuclear Iran. I do not suggest that we should commit so much money and national treasure to Afghanistan merely for the sake of impressing India. But I am suggesting that the deleterious effect on U.S.-India bilateral relations of giving up on Afghanistan should be part of our national debate on the war effort there, for at the moment it is not. The fact is that our ability to influence China will depend greatly on our ability to work with India, and that, in turn, will depend greatly on how we perform in Afghanistan.

In short, we need to win in Afghanistan in order to prevent the Indians from becoming friends with the Chinese, which would be a strategic disaster of the highest order, or something.

There are so many layers of silly and stupid stacked together that it’s difficult to sort them all out. Kaplan is not merely a silly thinker, but also a lazy and unimaginative one. People like Kaplan have made arguments like this for (literally) centuries; if we don’t commit our blood and treasure to worthless location X, then our “friends” in location Y will dash into the arms of our “enemies” in location Z. The script is well worn, and proved particularly popular during the Cold War. Of course, Kaplan fails to give any clear reason for why the US would fear detente between India and China, and appears oblivious to twenty years of US policy focused on reducing tension along the Sino-Indian border. He trots out a few bits of nonsense about Chinese military bases in the Indian Ocean without bothering to make an argument about why we would want to care about them.

Worse, he takes at face value the notion that the Indian leadership would somehow lose faith in our “resolve” and become in short order the lickspittle of China. Pakistani strength, as demonstrated by its ability to control Afghanistan, will drive India into tight alignment with Pakistan’s primary patron. He presents not the faintest evidence that such a move would take place, but rather intones darkly about the threat that this move would present to US strategic interests. He considers not for a moment the idea that Pakistani and Chinese strength and bellicosity might drive the Indians closer to the US; I doubt that the notion that states balance against power and threat even occurred to him. No; in his world, India is only worried about US “resolve” and is preparing to surrender the keys of the Taj Mahal to Hu Jintao if the US withdraws from Afghanistan.

In the real world, things are rather different. Unsurprisingly, China is paying a diplomatic price for its bellicosity:

For the last several years, one big theme has dominated talk of the future of Asia: As China rises, its neighbors are being inevitably drawn into its orbit, currying favor with the region’s new hegemonic power. The presumed loser, of course, is the United States, whose wealth and influence are being spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose economic troubles have eroded its standing in a more dynamic Asia.

But rising frictions between China and its neighbors in recent weeks over security issues have handed the United States an opportunity to reassert itself — one the Obama administration has been keen to take advantage of…

Meanwhile, China’s increasingly tense standoff with Japan over a Chinese fishing trawler captured by Japanese ships in disputed waters is pushing Japan back under the American security umbrella.

The arena for these struggles is shifting this week to a summit meeting of world leaders at the United Nations. Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, has refused to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, and on Tuesday he threatened Japan with “further action” if it did not unconditionally release the fishing captain.

See also Galrahn and Drezner. Tension between China and Russia over weapons licensing have increased in the last few years, leading to reluctance on the part of the Russians to export advanced technology to China. China’s unwillingness to acknowledge North Korea’s destruction of the Cheonan has created tension between Seoul and Beijing. The Japanese are now engaging in offensive military exercises designed to retake islands presumably seized by China. On the Sino-Indian front, tensions over disputed border areas have increased. Vietnam has pursued tighter security and economic cooperation with the United States.

None of this is surprising, and it doesn’t even mean that China has been particularly clumsy. The United States, to be sure, has hardly exhibited a deft hand. What it does indicate, however, is that states very often balance against power and threat. As Chinese power (and almost necessarily Chinese assertiveness) increases, the states surrounding China don’t knock themselves over in an effort to kowtow to Beijing. Rather, they pursue security relationships that ensure against potential (and it remains almost entirely potential) Chinese belligerence.

And yet, Robert Kaplan insists that if we don’t stay in Afghanistan, India will bandwagon and become a Chinese satellite. He presents this claim with no evidence, and makes no effort to logically support it. Indeed, Kaplan makes only the barest effort to claim that his deep knowledge of the Indian character gives him insight into Indian strategic behavior, perhaps because he’s not an India specialist. Kaplan’s talent is to tell the powerful what they want to hear with the veneer of both theoretical insight and empirical knowledge, while possessing neither.

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