Editions : July-September 2014




  Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific
By Robert D Kaplan
(Random House, 2014, 256pp)

Reviewed by Brad Nelson


Of course, the South China Sea grabs headlines because of the various territorial claims by nations in the area. According to Kaplan, the disputes are intensifying for two broad reasons. First, China is pressing outward as its military and economic power expands. For China, Kaplan argues, the South China Sea is the gateway to the Indian Ocean, which can allow Chinese forces to break free from the “military straightjacket” imposed on it by American military forces stationed in the region.

Second, the countries of Southeast Asia are experiencing their own ascension, particularly economically, and are now looking beyond their shores. But there is also a more fundamental factor at work here. These nations, comprised of various democratic and quasi-democratic systems, have for the most part moved away from the troublesome years of nation-building and consolidation, which for so long hampered them from being active players on the regional and international scenes. Southeast Asia is now ready and capable of advancing its claims and rights in the South China Sea.

It is in this context that China and Southeast Asian countries have tried to create facts on the ground. Kaplan correctly notes that both China and various Southeast Asian states have seized disputed shoals, reefs, rocks and elevated areas and built structures and facilities on them. There are fears in Southeast Asia and the West that China might set up an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over parts of the South China Sea, just as it did in the East China Sea in November 2013.

Unfortunately, Beijing won’t submit the South China Sea disputes to multilateral talks or adjudication; it will broach them only on a bilateral, case-by-case basis. The rub, however, is that countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines do not want to deal one-on-one with China because they are concerned about being coerced and bullied into bad deals. After all, China has enormous power advantages over Southeast Asia, and these asymmetries can profoundly shape political outcomes.

To remedy these concerns and hold off China’s attempts to upset the regional status quo, Kaplan explains, Southeast Asian nations have pursued a number of strategies, including appeals to international law and increased defense spending. But most significantly, Southeast Asia has bound itself ever more tightly to the United States for support and protection. To Southeast Asian nations, American muscle is what keeps China from running wild on the high seas. Hence, they want and actively seek good political, economic and military ties with Washington.

The downside, though, is that there are questions about America’s commitment to Asia, as Kaplan points out. Despite President Barack Obama’s “rebalance to Asia,” which was launched, at least in word, in 2011, quite a few North Asian and Southeast Asian countries are concerned about being abandoned by the US, especially if times get tough in America. They observe a host of domestic factors that might negatively impact America’s power and its willingness to deploy it abroad, such as budget limitations, economic struggles and post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan “imperial fatigue.”

So what should we make of all of this? Western observers have issued alarmist calls about the maritime disputes in Asia, and China’s rise more generally, saying it is analogous to the circumstances before World War I. Kaplan puts forward a different idea, challenging the conventional wisdom that China is necessarily bellicose. Kaplan contends that we should think about China’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea as similar to America’s actions in the Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In short, China wants to dominate its nearby seas, much like the US did in the Western Hemisphere, implementing its own version of America’s Monroe Doctrine. But even if this happens, according to the analogy, China will still want good political and economic ties with Washington, just like the US did with European countries after kicking them out of the Western Hemisphere.

Kaplan’s work is interesting and richly textured. He does a good job of capturing the complex elements shaping events and he provides a corrective to voices in the United States that claim China is looking for a fight. In my view, he gets the story right. And like his prior works, Kaplan’s narrative intertwines discussions of geography, history, culture, politics and travel anecdotes, making for an entertaining, lively read.

It isn’t a flawless work, however. For instance, he repeatedly mentions the prospect of Southeast Asian countries becoming “Finlandized” as a result of business and commercial ties with China. Yet in a work that’s mostly centered around military power, he never addresses how these countries can avoid this trap. Think of it this way: we can imagine a world in which Southeast Asia is armed to the teeth, and the US military is present, making all sides feel safe and secure, yet China, through economic dominance and persuasion, is still able to realign the interests and concerns of Southeast Asia in ways consistent with what it wants and desires.

Kaplan’s case study chapters on Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia were insightful and nuanced, but I believe he did readers a disservice by neglecting to explore Indonesia in much detail. Kaplan portrays Vietnam as the country around which Southeast Asia revolves. This is not true. It’s Indonesia.

Indonesia is the fourth-most populous and largest Muslim-majority nation in the world, has a strong and growing economy and has remarkably fashioned a stable and consolidated democracy in little more than 15 years. Its military and counterterrorism forces are more than competent. Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia is widely viewed as the bloc’s leader.

Of late, there have been rumblings from Indonesian military officials concerned that the Natuna Islands fall within China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; they openly suggest changes in Indonesia’s force posture as a result. With all of this in mind, it would have been fascinating to get Kaplan’s take on how Indonesia fits into the picture.

Lastly, in the penultimate chapter, Kaplan briefly mentions ASEAN as a player in the South China Sea but ultimately dismisses the grouping as not possessing much weight or power. Yes, it is true that ASEAN is plagued by internal divisions and varied conceptions of national identity. Still, with America’s urging and backing, ASEAN has made collective efforts to grapple with the manifold disputes in the South China Sea, first with its 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was co-signed by China, and its ongoing – and so far futile – attempts to formulate a binding code of conduct to govern behavior in the South China Sea. I’m fairly surprised none of this was mentioned.


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