Lieutenant General Mohammad Aminul Karim is no stranger to the sea. His latest book, Geopolitics of the South China Sea in the Coming Decades, continues a streak explaining why we must give ocean-based rivalry more currency. Yet again he applies the discipline of his military training to the International Relations discipline, leaving readers, as every scholarly book should, both inquisitive and enlightened.
International Relations, of course, was proposed a century ago amid the same kind of a military imbroglio Karim describes across East and South Asia today. As it transpired, E.H. Carr led a group of scholars not at all happy in placing all the tumultuous unfolding post-World War I developments inside such relevant extant fields as 'history' or 'diplomacy'. His classic Twenty Years Crisis pleaded for an 'inter-national relations' knowledge mode. Delivering it through Politics Among Nations (Knopf, 1948), Hans J. Morgenthau earned the 'Father of International Relations' sobriquet. The subtitle of this masterpiece, The Struggle for Power and Peace, projects the heart, mind, and soul of Karim's work.
Today's neo-liberalized setting challenges this. Our mindset is so riddled with free-trade agreements, market-access, and software technologies that our geopolitical sense may have waned too much. Karim's assessment of our own 'twenty years crisis' in this century reaffirms the grimness of a reality we cannot easily dismiss. But we must.
He covers 180-odd degrees of the hemisphere's circumference in as many pages. Unlike many others exploring South China Sea dynamics, Karim treats this zone as one 'tree' in a geopolitical game whose 'forest' matters immensely more: not just China, nor too the littoral countries, but those, like the United States, with calculations strategic enough to rock the boat. He offers a blueprint to unwrap concurrent complications to future diplomats (note his title's suffix: 'in the Coming Decades'). Unbeknownst to him, he also leaves a tidy IR101 textbook for his IUB Business School students to wrangle with.
His first three chapters describe, in chronological order, his investigative subject, the book's organization, and the IR theories needed to navigate those dynamics. In chapters 4, 5, and 6 we see the shape and size of his 'forest': China-based intricacies, their maritime spillovers, and why controlling the hitherto nondescript South China Sea (hardly the Mackinder heartland, or the Cold War Iron Curtain), helps usurp half the world (only the Atlantic zone is spared his scrutiny). Appraising other countries impacted by the Dragon's outreach, Karim gives India the pride of place, in Chapter 8, followed in Chapter 10 by the directly agitated ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) members. Chapters 9 and 11 connect the dots of chapters 8 and 10 with legal, historical, and policy discussions, leaving Chapter 12 for budding diplomats/scholars/students to ponder various future 'scenarios.'
Those diplomats, scholars, and particularly extant students (future policy-makers), should note: not a beat comes unannounced. Very much like a military parade, every foot-soldier (Karim's 'trees') falls into place. Coherence and comprehensiveness characterize the book.
Yet, the metaphorical seat of 'deep learning' lies in the substance. Amid the deluge of 'South China Sea' description, explanation, and references today (in articles, books, media, and so forth), Karim vibrantly discusses the East China Sea controversy and the forthcoming Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) battlefield. Once completed, China's island-building project cannot but force Japan to lock tighter horns with China over East China Sea claims.
Notwithstanding, President Donald J. Trump bailed both countries out with his tariffs. China is fighting back, Japan fears 'collateral damage,' and both decided to join hands. Shifting priorities to local arrangements over strategic safeguards with the United States and the rest of Asia, their October 2018 détente underscores the merits of looking a gift-horse in the mouth. Karim senses the right battle, but neglects one constituent component entirely.
Swinging south, as it must, the book again ends up merely surfing across Australia instead of sifting into the nitty-gritty details. More attention is paid ASEAN members and India than an Australia battling between China, its top trading partner and increasing source of migrants, and the United States, its post-World War II patron. With only one mention of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Karim's IPR elevation identifies a long-term rival, the United States, a pacified neighbor, Japan, a short-term concern, India, and a crucial Australia left too limp. That is an intellectual gold mine, if the General has any more ink left in his quill, comparing Japan's and India's Chinese rapprochement, or Australia's possible balancer role.
In admiral clothing, our General fittingly informs us of future naval 'flash-points.' He dots Asia's rim, from the Korean peninsula to Africa, through the South China Sea, Australia's north, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea, obviously overlapping China's Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Dynamics invoked here may be too strong to ignore in future geopolitics.
Karim might also rethink, in a next book, how more mileage can be gotten out of the hegemonic stability theory (HST). He identifies on only one of its two explanatory theses in Chapter 3: the necessary condition of world leadership, based on military might. Robert Gilpin, who laid out that theory to explain leadership-changes, also emphasized leadership's sufficient conditions: economic and technical resources. Demonstrating his argument that foreign direct investment served as the vehicle of U.S. hegemony, Gilpin actually emphasized this thesis more than military power. Karim's geopolitical study could do likewise: let China's sufficient leadership conditions (the BRI network) complement his geopolitical configurations.
As a BRI flagship, China's island-construction project alerts us how South China Sea, Hambantota, Gwador, and Djibouti, among other BRI recipient stations, may resemble for China in the 21st Century what Gibraltar, Colombo, Singapore, and Hong Kong did for 19th Century Britain: outposts to 'rule the waves,' raising soft-power (trade and investment) to at least the geopolitical hard-power level. Since counterpart U.S. world leadership outposts, like the Normandy invasion, Midway, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, were/are all military, China's 21st Century power-rivalry paints a different evolutionary picture than the 20th Century U.S. case.
The farther back we go, the clearer our contours become of China's possible future hegemony being different to what we know. It is, first, the only repeat world leader, using, secondly, more soft power than hard, mobilizing, thirdly, naval over land or aerial capabilities, and, finally, depicting war-averseness far more than war-cultivation. These were evident in China's 2nd Century BCE Great Silk Route, and its 14th Century Indian Ocean suzerainty under Admiral Zheng He, who, curiously, was China's only Muslim admiral: his fleets reached the Americas just after his 1433 death, still half a century before Christopher Columbus (whose sea-routes were brought back from nowhere else but China by the likes of Marco Polo).
As he writes his next books, Karim might heed the wisdom of another military don, also addressing 'the coming decades': “War is not an independent phenomenon,” Claus von Clausewitz noted from Napoleon Bonaparte's ill-planned expansion. It must also include “a continuation of politics by other means.” Producing more polished future diplomats (and current students) to deal with Karim's favorite subject and top concern needs Clausewitz's dialectics.
Imtiaz A. Hussein is Professor and the Head of Global Studies & Governance at the Independent University, Bangladesh.