Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific

Image of Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific
Release Date: 
March 25, 2014
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“. . . an excellent primer to the conflicting ambitions, fears, and futures of the nations bordering this vital sea-lane . . .”

The South China Sea is one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints with multiple countries making claims to its waters and the untapped resources beneath, including China and Vietnam. Yet most Americans are unfamiliar with this region of the world and would be challenged to locate the Paracel or Spratly Islands on a map.

Robert Kaplan, named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of its top global thinkers, has written this very timely volume to examine the history, culture, and power politics that are making this region one of the most critical geographic areas of the 21st century.

One of the challenges in reading this book, as with Mr. Kaplan’s earlier volume, Monsoon, which examined the rim nations of the Indian Ocean, is that his writing does not fit into any particular genre. Part travelogue, part history, and part geostrategic analysis, Asia's Cauldron sets some lofty goals for itself and largely succeeds in presenting a holistic look at the competing diplomatic and economic interests of the nations along the South China Sea.

Kaplan devotes a chapter each to Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, and China, examining their historical roots; current political, economic, military and diplomatic posture; and subsequent claims to the various islands, reefs, and shoals within these waters. 

In addition, Kaplan assesses the levels of cooperation or alliance with the United States and the perspective each country’s ruling elite has on the role of the U.S. Navy in patrolling and maintaining freedom of navigation in these vital sea lanes.

A couple of interesting points stand out. First, history matters to all of these countries, and not just the ancient history where many of their present day claims and grudges originated, but World War II and the post-colonial era.

As Kaplan narrates, the socio-economic and cultural aftermath of war and independence has been the major factor in the political and economic development of these countries, and their subsequent interest in the South China Sea.

Second, a couple of Kaplan’s assessments are open to alternative viewpoints. His assertion that the maritime nature of the region in question and the lack of large ground forces staring across each other’s gun barrels lessons the prospects for conflict seem to contradict other statements that the isolated nature of naval and air power might make the use of force more tempting.

To carry this notion to its logical conclusion, what is not examined in detail by Kaplan is that the small, isolated, and limited defenses of many of the islets, shoals, and reefs may, in fact, embolden aggressive action by an expansionist China. With no civilian population and limited, easily controllable media access to these outposts, it is not implausible for China to use its growing naval power and amphibious capability to seize strategic islands and present the other interested countries, including the United States, with a fait accompli. More discussion of this worst-case but entirely possible scenario would have been welcome.

Kaplan also does not discuss the history or role of the United States in the region extensively. Although the U.S. has no territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, as a global maritime power the U.S. Navy conducts frequent freedom of navigation transits and numerous reconnaissance flights in the region to monitor China’s naval activities.

The 2001 collision of an American EP-3 aircraft with a Chinese fighter plane greatly increased tensions between the U.S. and China that were only completely forgotten after 9/11. Although Kaplan does an excellent job of examining the various rim nations’ relations with the U.S. and their delicate tightrope of integrating with the Chinese economy while balancing with the U.S. to minimize Chinese hegemony, the U.S. has its own interests that deserved their own chapter.

Nonetheless, this volume is an excellent primer to the conflicting ambitions, fears, and futures of the nations bordering this vital sea-lane, which will remain one of the most dangerous flashpoints of the coming decade.