The Coming Collision of Superpowers in the Pacific

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 [1513], 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, Zhōngguó. 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.”

Winchester: Yes.

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 problems in the 1920s and ‘30s. It reminds us that American, Italian, German, French and British warships were able to operate deep inside China on the Yangtze River for 50 years. If anyone committed a crime, if a ship sailor got involved in a fight in Wuhan or Chongqing, that wouldn’t be judged by the Chinese courts. Heaven no, we were not going to have one of our people judged by Chinese Magistrate. We’ll try them in our own courts.

It was this principle of extraterritoriality, which we arrogantly assumed was right. But how would we feel if the Chinese Navy were operating in the Mississippi and one of their sailors gets involved in a fight in Hannibal, Missouri, and says, “We don’t want to be judged by your Missouri courts. We’ll be judged by our Naval courts.” Because we have behaved in a certain way in the Pacific doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the civilized world [would do the same], and no one would argue that China is not part of the civilized world because, after all, their civilization is 20 times as old as ours. They will behave in a perfectly civilized manner. They simply want equivalence, and they want respect, and I think they should be given it.

Kobrin: You characterize Western dominance in terms of aircraft carriers, nuclear tests, coral bleaching and pollution, and argue that the Chinese warships — and I’m being a little unfair — will lead to reverence, accommodation, admiration and awe. The question is why should the Chinese warships going out to the second and third chain of islands be more benign than the Western warships were in the same place?

Winchester: Because they’re simply seeking equivalence. They’re not suggesting that their warships are there for any malign purpose. It’s simply a symbol of the extension of Chinese influence. Chinese cultural influence will follow the flag if you like in the same way that trade tended to follow the flag. I just don’t think we need to fear them, but the Pentagon does. What does the military industrial complex demand? “Oh, the Chinese are ramping up their Navy. So we need to get a second aircraft carrier into the Western Pacific, and we need to buy more submarines.” We all know that leads nowhere, except to an ever-increasing tax burden on the American people.

Kobrin: Let me shift gears. You talk about climate change and the increasing extreme weather events in the Western Pacific and North America, but then you argue that the planet may heal itself…. How will the Pacific Ocean help to provide some self-regulating remedy to the man-made destruction of the global climate?

Winchester: There are two answers to that. One is that undeniably the Pacific, simply because of its vastness, is an enormous absorber of heat from the sun. Its water holds heat much longer than rocks do. If you stand under a rock in the desert at night, the rock goes cold. But if you stand in a body of water, it will retain that heat for a very much longer time. The Pacific absorbs heat, and as it does so it produces — because it’s taking so much more heat at the moment — more ferocious weather locally [such as]  storms, all of that sort of thing.

But nonetheless it is there to absorb the heat and to create, by doing so, inconveniences for humankind. Nonetheless, for the planet as a whole, the fact that it is absorbing heat is a good thing because this helps the planet as a whole, disregarding humankind, survive. It helps it weather these changes, these distortions in the atmosphere.

But there’s another aspect of this, which I found completely fascinating and which I discovered when I was writing a book about the Atlantic Ocean. There is this creature we didn’t even know existed until 1989, which exists in all of the oceans of the world in the warm waters … called Prochlorococcus, a single-celled algae creature that absorbs carbon dioxide and expels oxygen. This is the most numerous creature on the planet — trillions upon trillions of these things which emit oxygen such that one in five of the breaths that you are taking in this studio today has been generated by a creature that we didn’t even know existed as recently as 1989.

“The Chinese are not likely to do what we have done which is to colonize and enslave and dominate. They just want to … enjoy equivalence.”

The thing about Prochlorococcus is it loves warm water, so the warmer the waters get, the higher the temperature of the oceans … the more Prochlorococcus there will be…. This is a classic example of the planet healing itself: the Gaia theory, James Lovelock’s theory that the planet as a whole is a self-regulating mechanism. We, humans, are an irrelevance really. We’re just soon going to be fossils. We’ll be like Ammonites and Trilobites. We’ll just be another slightly more annoying, temporary inhabitant of the planet. The planet will be okay. We’ll disappear….

Kobrin: You close by talking about sailing canoes and navigation, and the attempt to replicate some of the older, Trans-Pacific ventures. Could you talk about that a little bit and its relevance to where we’re going in the future?

Winchester: Hokulea is a traditional, Hawaiian sailing canoe — a huge thing, about 60-feet long, twin hulls, two sails, built in 1976 by a group of Hawaiians as Hawaii’s gift to America for the bicentenary. They weren’t just gifting the physical object of the canoe. They were gifting the skill of navigating without instruments because that’s what the Polynesians did for thousands of years before we came along. There’s this big triangle with Hawaii in the north and Easter Island in the East and New Zealand or Eritrea in the West. The Polynesians would happily sail from Easter Island to New Zealand without using any instruments, without any compass, without any sextant — just by studying the movement of clouds, the stars, the feel of the waves, the tracks of sea birds and things.

If they wanted to go 5,000 miles from Easter Island, they could in the old days until we came along and said, “Sorry, Easter Island is Chilean and the next islands are French, and then those are British and these are American islands. To sail through them you’ll need a passport.” They said, “Well, what’s a passport?” [The Westerners] said, “Well, you need application forms.” And they said, “Well, we can’t read or write. We’ve never seen a need to.” The navigation effectively died. People stopped doing the thing.

“The planet as a whole is a self-regulating mechanism. We, humans, are an irrelevance really. We’re just soon going to be fossils. We’ll be like Ammonites and Trilobites…. The planet will be okay. We’ll disappear…”

There were one or two people who knew how to do it. One in particular … taught a group of local Hawaiians how to sail this canoe without any instruments. He said, “We can get to Tahiti in six weeks,” and they got to Tahiti in exactly six weeks. This encouraged the Hawaiians and they set to learning these skills. And they took their little boat up to Japan, reminding the Japanese that they were very much a Pacific people. They took it to Vancouver, they took it to Chile and now they’ve become incredibly good at it.

And now they’re sailing it around the world and this little craft is — at the time we’re talking, she’s just arrived in South Africa in Mossel Bay and she’ll be going ’round Cape of Good Hope up into the Atlantic Ocean and the aim is that by sometime this coming summer — she will sail up the Potomac and show herself and introduce the crew of this remarkable venture to their Hawaiian President — to remind him what Polynesian people should do. And then they’ll scoot down the East Coast to South American through the Magellan Straits and up to — towards Hawaii and home. It’ll take four years to do the whole — do the whole journey.

My feeling is that if they get adequate publicity, and we come to realize this extraordinary nature of this achievement, then we will give to them and the ocean on which they’re sailing something which has been sorely lacking from us Westerners, and that is our respect. That’s what I’m hoping for, and I think that’s what they’re hoping for….

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