Analyst Spells Out U.S. Interests In Pacific Rim

Nov 17, 2011
Originally published on November 17, 2011 4:49 pm
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Joining us now is Thomas P.M. Barnett. He's the chief analyst for Wikistrat. That's a firm that offers geopolitical analysis. He's also executive vice president of the Center for America-China Partnership.

Thomas Barnett, welcome to the program.

THOMAS P.M. BARNETT: Thanks for having for me on.

RAZ: We just heard from Anthony Kuhn a bit about why China is averse to the idea of an American base in Darwin. Let's tackle this from the U.S. point of view first. Why Australia?

BARNETT: Well, Australia is a long-term ally and it's also a country that's experiencing a tremendous ramping up of economic relations, financial relations, with China, all of this building very dramatically in just the last 10 years. And there's a sense across Australia, you know, that they're tying their economic future to China and when they do that and they still are looking at what they consider to be a communist government, a single-party state to be sure. And that kind of makes them turn more to the United States to balance that kind of overwhelming relationship that's developing so rapidly on the economic front with the Chinese.

RAZ: Can you spell out the strategic interests that the U.S. says it needs to protect in the Asia Pacific region? What are those, specifically?

BARNETT: Well, obviously, it's a huge economic situation for us. I mean, we have tremendous trade ties there and there's a general recognition in the United States that, if the 20th century was a transatlantic century, this is obviously going to be a transpacific one. So there's great concern that, you know, long time allies are going to be kind of overwhelmed and dwarfed by China's rise.

There's also the argument, from kind of the national security community, we've spent a lot of time on this long war. In Southwest Asia, if you're drawing down there, Asia becomes kind of a convenient excuse for keeping those troops out there and kind of signaling that the United States is not withdrawing in terms of isolationism or something of that sort.

RAZ: At any given time, there are aircraft carriers out floating around somewhere around the world, large and able vessels, as well, particularly in the South China Sea. Can you explain the strategic importance of that area? We're talking about a lot of commerce coming through there.

BARNETT: To a certain extent, but the real anxiety over the South China Sea is over the estimates of considerable hydrocarbons under the seabed there and the seabed. And so this is an Asia that, you have to understand, is experiencing, especially in the form of China, kind of rapid energy use, becoming increasingly dependent on the Persian Gulf.

So they're very nervous about that rising dependency on foreign oil and that anxiety is being played out in terms of China building up its naval capacity and then simultaneously expressing claims territorially in those waters, making the other states nervous. How are we all going to get the energy that we require? This becomes kind of a flashpoint that China has awkwardly exacerbated with some of the things it's done and said in recent months.

RAZ: Thomas Barnett, in your capacity with the Center for America-China Partnership, which encourages better relations between the two countries, do you think that this deployment of Marines in Darwin in Australia is provocative, as the Chinese seem to be suggesting?

BARNETT: Well, they have a lot of concerns about being hemmed in. From China's perspective, America's a land blessed with all sorts of resources and China is not a country blessed with a lot of resources. Other than dirty coal and people, they're short on just about everything else. They're very nervous about being cut off from supply, so any time the United States kind of puts more military presence in Asia or suggests anything along the lines of an encirclement strategy - and certainly, they're going to interpret it along these lines - it makes them feel like the United States is really trying to prevent their rise and constraining their trajectory towards superpower status.

RAZ: Thomas Barnett, thank you.

BARNETT: Thank you.

RAZ: That's Thomas P.M. Barnett. He is the chief analyst for Wikistrat and he's also with the Center for America-China Partnership. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.