Robert Kaplan, an American writer, was rated by the Foreign Policy Magazine in both 2011 and 2012 as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers.” A prolific author, his books include “Revenge of Geography” and “The Coming Anarchy.” Kaplan was also on the Defense Policy Board in 2009.
In “Asia’s Cauldron”, Kaplan lays out in a measured and intimidatingly clinical manner the subtle albeit overwhelming undercurrents (no pun intended) characterising one of the most commercially important and relevant maritime mass of our times. The South China Sea is not just the nerve centre of trade and commerce but also a roiling cauldron where nine littoral states lay various claim to various stretches of land and water. Ranging from the outrageous to the outlandish these disputes have the potential to trigger a catastrophe in the form of a full blown naval warfare, in the event things transcend a mere impasse. However, and fortunately, this possibility at the time of this writing is extremely remote. In just under two hundred pages, Kaplan provides a lucid and arresting overview regarding the issues, the players, their tactics that characterize the theatre that is the South China Sea. At the core stand two economic and military behemoths, China and the United States of America. While one is a hegemon not just looking to recapture lost glory, but to attain global dominion in the process, facing it is a weary superpower acting as a moral and mechanical deterrent, trying to reign in the hegemon’s ambitions if not totally putting paid to its hopes. At the periphery lie scattered nation states with their own agendas and aspirations. It does not take more than putting two and two together to arrive at the conclusion that while the hegemon is China, the balancing power is the United States of America. Sandwiched between these two powers are Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam.
The importance of the South China Sea may be grasped from the fact that more than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through it. In the words of Kaplan, this phenomenon has transformed South China Sea into “the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans — the mass of connective tissue where global sea routes coalesce,”
Kaplan informs his readers that while China in spite of investing in state of the art sleek submarines & other defense armaments that are varying in their degrees of sophistication and impact, they would certainly attempt what Kaplan terms as ““Finlandizing” Southeast Asia. Similar to what Finland was forced to do in the wake of the former Soviet pressure exerted during the Cold War, the littoral states while maintaining nominal independence will deign to the diktats of China in so far as foreign policies are concerned. To quote Kaplan, “War in the South China Sea remains a possibility against which all regional powers must always be on guard … China now demands a regional order that it, as the dominant indigenous power, will do the most to maintain. Because Chinese naval power is rising, the situation is in serious flux.”
Kaplan, after setting the context to his contention, goes on to dissect the bargaining powers and pain points of each country vis-à-vis China. While the Chapter on Vietnam makes for some engrossing read in so far as the country poses the most formidable – if not intractable – defense against a burgeoning China, having shared a bitter sweet relationship with China that ranges over many centuries, the Chapters on Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia go more than a bit off tangent. These chapters are more a discussion about the leaders that made their nations than their future over resources and independence in the South China Sea. While the former premier of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew comes for some glowing tributes, the most influential leader in the vicinity of his neighourhood, Mahathir Mohammed attracts an ambivalent opinion making him look like a benevolent dictator. “Lee and Mahathir may have governed in the spirit of Aristotle, with their mixed regimes that prepared the way to democratic rule”
In so far as Taiwan is concerned there is an astringent rebuke of the criticism leveled against Chiang Kai Shek by individuals such as Army Lieutenant Joseph Stilwell. Kaplan relies on two revisionist biographies of Chiang Kai-Shek to defend the character and moves of the man: “Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation” by Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the London Observer and the Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post and “The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the struggle for Modern China” by Jay Taylor, former China Desk Officer at the US State Department, and later research associate at the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. While these make for some absorbing and revealing reading, the reader cannot but wonder at their significance to the topic on hand.
Kaplan also warns about the diminishing if not the waning interest of the United States towards other geographies in direct contradistinction to its fixation with the Middle East. The two Gulf Wars, and an Iranian policy gone awry have contributed to this shift in priorities. However, with a rapidly ascending China, the United States can ill afford to compromise its interest and stake in the South China Sea. For doing so would result in not just compromising the interests of many nations, but threatening their very future itself.
Kaplan also brings to bear the view of a horde of political analysts and military experts to give teeth to his analysis. A name that keeps springing repeatedly is John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago political scientist. Others of reckoning include Yale historian Jonathan Spence, Cambridge University Historian Piers Brendon, President of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessmentsin Washington, Andrew F. Krepinevich etc.
Asia’s Cauldron is a mesmerizing book written by an expert who is in his elements. Forceful, thought provoking and enduring, this book is a must read for every student, political maven, strategic decision maker and all others possessing a keen interest in the affairs of the South China Sea.