The Coming Collision Of Superpowers In The Pacific by Knowledge@Wharton
In the new book Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, bestselling author Simon Winchester examines the role of the Pacific Ocean in the modern world.
Recently, Wharton emeritus management professor Stephen J. Kobrin sat down with Winchester to discuss his book and the geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean.
An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
Stephen J. Kobrin: At the beginning of the book, you talk about the fact that the Pacific Ocean is coming to symbolize the future and that the Mediterranean was once the inland sea of the ancient world, the Atlantic to some people was the inland sea of the modern world and that you can argue that the Pacific Ocean will be the inland sea of tomorrow’s world. What does that mean?
Simon Winchester: It’s the place where … the two great civilizations finally meet and confront each other. We have humankind originating in Ethiopia with one group going off east to Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley and Peking, and the other group going through the Balkans and up into Europe. Many Europeans cross[ed] the Atlantic into the Americas and, under the impress of the Manifest Destiny, [made] their way west to the shores of the Pacific. Then after [Vasco Núñez de] Balboa first saw it in , crossing it and then confronting the other great civilization.
You’ve got the Eastern civilization on the West side of the Pacific and the Western civilization on the East side of the Pacific. It’s a bit of a geographical topsy-turvy-dom. How do these two peoples deal with each other? [I]n the past, they have, generally speaking, colonized or brutalized or enslaved or in some way spoiled the lives of the Easterners…. In the 1970s, the Americans withdrew from Southeast Asia, and the British withdrew from their vast colonial imperium in the Pacific Ocean. The Germans, the Japanese have left and the Pacific peoples are now essentially standing on their own two feet for the first time since we, Europeans, began interfering with their lives.
It seems to me that these two great civilizations have the potential to cooperate at long last with one another. As a consequence of that, we’re seeing a real hinge point of history. We’re going to see a shift in the sort of dominance of, let’s say, Rome, and it’s going to move now to the dominance of, let us say, Peking or Beijing, very roughly. That change of order is going to happen in and around the Pacific, which is why I think the Pacific is important in all of humankind’s futures.
“It seems to me that these two great civilizations have the potential to cooperate at long last with one another. As a consequence of that, we’re seeing a real hinge point of history.”
Kobrin: In the book, you note the end of Vasco da Gama era, the sudden and very wholesale redistribution of world power, and [argue that] after half a millennium of the West dominating Pacific, it now seems to be the turn of the Asians. You argue that that would be a good thing, that the Asia for the Asians offers a possibility of greater stability for the region. Why should the Asians do a better job than the Westerners did?
Winchester: Because with the single exception of the Japanese in a spasm of unpleasantness from the 1930s to the middle of the 1940s, the Asians have been much more benign in their management of the world than we Westerners have. The Chinese, to give a classic example, have the most populous country on Earth and have not — with the single exception of Tibet — really overreached itself. They have remained contentedly within their own borders, and they have been the Middle Kingdom, Zh?ngguó. They have been content with who they are and not wishing to export themselves culturally or imperially in the way that we Westerners have done. We Westerners have gone around the world dominating and enslaving and influencing millions, billions of people.
[Despite] the British and the Americans leaving the legacy of the English language … certain types of legal frameworks, and one might argue railways and postal systems and so forth, generally speaking, we have left a legacy which has embedded in it the seeds of all sorts of conflict. When you go to look in the Middle East and look at the borders that we drew, look at India-Pakistan, look at Northern Ireland, look at Israel. Eastern countries have not done that kind of thing, generally speaking. Yes, there have been some excesses. So I think I would rather live in a world run by Asians than in a world run by us.
Kobrin: Is it likely to be that smooth of a transition? Are we likely to go from a world run by us to a world run by Asians without conflict and disorder?
Winchester: That’s my hope. No, there are going to be all sorts of rough patches, which may take many decades to resolve. The classical situation is the one evolving at the moment in the South China Sea, which is the Chinese have this fairly worked out stratagem of expanding their Navy into the Pacific. They have already, as it were, taken de facto, if not de jure, control of the South China Sea. [They have the] Bastian chains of islands extending outwards all the way out to Hawaii. They think, and in my view quiet reasonably, the Americans have dominated the Pacific Ocean navally for the last 60 years, we’re a Pacific nation, we have a big Navy, we’re rich and influential; why can’t we at least have maritime equivalents?
The Pentagon regards that as threatening. I don’t regard it as threatening in the slightest because the Chinese are not likely to do what we have done, which is to colonize and enslave and dominate.?Twitter They just want to, as I say, enjoy equivalence. But so long as that is feared by people, then there’s the potential for conflict. There’s also the potential for accidents of course, so the potential for conflict will lead undeniably to confrontations here and there. But in overall, general, long-term, historical sense, nothing that can’t be dealt with. Then it will all settle down into this new world order.
Kobrin: One hopes. China does seem to be extending its territoriality sequentially in the Pacific from the first chain to the second chain to the third chain.
“We Westerners have gone around the world dominating and enslaving and influencing millions, billions of people…. I would rather live in a world run by Asians than in a world run by us.”
Kobrin: How should the United States react to that?
Winchester: I think by trying to understand why China is seeking this maritime equivalence and not being fearful of its potential because I don’t think that it is dangerous. A classic example is the Yangtze River. I was watching recently this wonderful film … called “The Sand Pebbles” with Candice Bergen and Steve McQueen on an American gun boat in the Yangtze putting down all sorts of