Rough waters head
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.

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