I’ve been a fan of Robert D. Kaplan since reading Balkan Ghosts in the mid-90s. Although I don’t always agree with him, I do enjoy reading his blend of travelogue, history and political science, and I always learn something new.
Kaplan’s latest, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, continues his tradition of focusing on areas of the world that are both lesser known to many and potential areas of conflict. It is also somewhat of a companion piece to an earlier work, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and The Future of American Power.
As the title suggests, Asia’s Cauldron closely examines the nations ringing the South China Sea: China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. In addition to being the world’s busiest intersection of commercial shipping (especially oil tankers), the sea is home to abundant stocks of fish and may have large stores of hydrocarbons beneath its seabed. Most of the bordering nations have staked claims in the sea, and all are following China’s lead in building up their navies, making the potential for conflict quite high.
I try to keep up with world events, but have to agree with Kaplan that the arms race around the South China Sea has gone mostly unreported by general U.S. media outlets.
Of particular note is the feverish acquisition of submarines, as surface warships become more vulnerable to offensive missiles. “Submarines are the new bling, everybody wants them,” Bernard Loo Fook Weng of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told me. Note that submarines are moving, undersea intelligence-gathering factories. Unlike aircraft carriers for example, which in and of themselves constitute statements of national prestige and are useful for a variety of missions, including humanitarian relief, submarines are about sheer aggression, even as the gathering of information in which they engage may serve a stabilizing purpose by providing one state with knowledge about the intentions and capabilities of another.
— Kaplan, Robert D. (2014-03-25). Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (Kindle Locations 628-633). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The United States has already announced a planned “pivot” to focus more on Asian affairs as opposed to Europe and the Middle East, and this book is a fine primer for one of the reasons why. Given the relative size and strength of China, it is easy to see why the other nations bordering the sea are eager for the United States to maintain a vigorous military presence — an idea which Kaplan, unsurprisingly given his history, concurs in.
Still, Kaplan is a realist and he acknowledges China’s right to both build up its military and flex its muscles regionally, most tellingly by comparison to America’s dominance over the Gulf of Mexico in the early-1800s. The big difference, of course, is the nations surround the South China Sea are for the most part much more stable, economically and politically, than those the U.S. was dealing with.
A concern of many watching the situation is the ring nations becoming “Finlandized,” or deciding to accept China’s dominance in the region rather than remain in opposition to it. Only continued U.S. presence in the region can avert this, which Kaplan acknowledges could be difficult given the inevitable cuts to America’s military budget. He also points out that the relationship between the U.S. and China is much more dynamic and interconnected than that of Cold War America and the USSR, which makes the overall situation both easier and harder to manage.
All in all Asia’s Cauldron was everything I expect in a Robert D. Kaplan book. It was a highly readable blend of history, politics and culture, and I learned quite a bit about a region which could well be of crucial importance in the coming years.