The South China Sea is easily becoming the most important foreign policy issue in the Asia-Pacific region. With impeccable timing, Robert Kaplan’s new book, Asia’s Cauldron, attempts to illuminate the main actors in the dispute.
The book seems written for readers with some knowledge of Asia and foreign policy issues. This is both a strength and weakness of the book. The book is very accessible and Kaplan writes clearly enough for readers with only minimal knowledge to step right in. In some ways, the book could serve as an introduction to the countries surrounding the South China Sea. As somebody who teaches about U.S. foreign policy in Asia, I could easily imagine using chapters from this book on my syllabus in future years.
Kaplan provides a compelling chef’s tour of the South China Sea. He has a knack for drawing out the essential political and cultural characteristics of each country without veering into essentialism. I found his chapter on Malaysia – ironically, one of the less consequential disputants in the region – to be particularly insightful in its ability to unpack the potential contradictions in Malaysian modernity and Malay Islam. I found the discussion of each government’s attitude towards military power to be particularly illuminating. Kaplan seems able to obtain honest insights from key policymakers about their country’s relationship with China and the U.S.
On the other hand, the book does not go into sufficient detail for Asia specialists (I am probably in the latter camp) or those who have studied the South China Sea for years. There is surprisingly little discussion about the territorial claims themselves – if anything, the book focuses on the disputants, not the disputes. He skims over important aspects of the issue, such as ASEAN’s role (or lack thereof). While he does include anecdotes about the state of military and naval forces in each country, analysts will likely long for more rigorous detail. Kaplan does not end the book with grand foreign policy proposals for the Obama administration or State Department. I think this partly reflects his admirable humility, but also left me wondering how the U.S. should proceed in the future (especially because one of the disputants, the Philippines, is a treaty ally).
I certainly do not mean this to be a criticism of Asia’s Cauldron, but rather to suggest that the book will likely suit generalist readers more than Asia scholars. It provides invaluable insights into the countries along the South China Sea. Policy wonks, however, will probably want to supplement this book with a report from Brookings or other think tanks.
on May 23, 2014
Parts of this book are interesting but other parts do not appear to stand up to scrutiny. As other reviewers have noted, this book is essentially a long article that has been expanded into book form. I believe Kaplan needed better editing to keep this book "on-point."
Kaplan offers a convincing argument on China's ascendecy in the south China sea resulting in conflicts and possibly leading to Finlandization of the other countries depending on if US regional power wanes resulting in the region becoming a satillite to China. However, in my opinion, Kaplan writes this book like a debater to prove his point and dismisses issues that do not agree with his premise - another reason this book needed more editing - and data - to back Kaplan's points. Kaplan does not seem to consider issues that disagree with his premise. On every third page or so I would read a sentance or paragragh and think, huh, this does not seem quite true or seems quite over-stated. As a result, sections of the book do not stand up to scrutiny. For instance, Kaplan suggests in the book that a future navel war in this region will be a logical clean-type war that the rest of the world will be able to learn from as this area of asia is so rational!? Huh? I believe any wars that may occur will not be predicable and I doubt they will be the clean sanitized navel war Kaplan appears to believe is possible. Wars, and their effects by their nature are unpredicable.
The ending chapters of the book summarize the policies of China's neighbors in this region and are quite interesting. In summary, this book is a very mixed bag with an interesting argument with some good information but many sections need to be scutinized or researched in greater depth.
on April 29, 2014
It's ironic that I write this review on the day that the U.S. and the Philippines agrees to a new military alliance, where the U.S. sends rotating troops and navy ships to perform maneuvers and reconnaissance. The U.S. now has similar treaties with Australia and Singapore. I've also been reading recent articles on why the U.S. is making military commitments, to counter China, with Obama stating that "China isn't the focus."
This book explains what this situation is all about, the situation of each country on the South China Sea, and why China is so hostile to all this. Note that China is building up their military, not their army, but their navy, and to a slightly lesser degree, their air force.
The American press pictures China as the hostile power here, but when you look at it, China feels they have a rightful claim to the South China Sea, just as the U.S. has a claim on the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and Europe having a claim on the Mediterranean, except that the U.S. does not violate the territorial waters off of other countries in the Gulf or the Caribbean.
With China now being a major economic power, and they do do business with India, Africa, and the Middle East,the South China Sea provides major passage between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and, like the United States, China intends to become a two ocean country. This sea also has a lot of valuable natural resources, starting with oil and natural gas, not to mention rich fishing grounds, and China is going to want all that wealth. With a population of 1.3 billion people, they are going to need it.
Another little known fact is that China does not go by the Law of the Sea treaty, with a claim 200 miles of the continental shelf off its coast only, with all other international borders respected. China want all of the sea. The U.S., from their point of view, has no right to it because they are a country 7000 miles away, with no claim whatsoever. China, having a history of being colonized, and humiliated by other world powers, in coming into its own, and what they claim, they will have. That's the way they see it. Are they really the villains?
Other countries around the sea do see China as a threat, and China's claims are intruding on their own territories on the sea, with Chinese coast guard vessels driving off fishing boats and other vessels, laying claim to small islands other countries also claim (the Spratleys, the Parcels, etc.).
Because of this, these countries, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam (yes, Vietnam), Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia are all drawing up treaties with the U.S., allowing them to either establish naval bases or at least allow our navy ships to dock at their ports. Many of these countries and also establishing posts of their own in the sea to counteract China.
This is where the situations stands today.
Robert Kaplan has visited these countries, studied their cultures, and history, and gives a clear understanding of why these countries, and China, have the points of view that they do. In order to stabilize that part of the world, the U.S. Navy, and Air Force, has to be there to protect these countries and allow freedom for their ships, merchant and military, to sail where needed. China needs the freedom to sail on the South China Sea, through the Straits of Malacca, to the Indian Ocean and beyond to Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
What is especially interesting is the question on Taiwan. China may want it back, and they are very stubborn about this, but Taiwan's coast is almost impossible for ships to land in invade, and the Taiwanese themselves are armed to the teeth.
Vietnam, in spite of our war with them (they call it the American War), has invited the U.S. Navy back to Cam Rahn Bay for ships to dock. They have a sense of superiority because they won the war against us, but that is fading into history.
Malaysia is an interesting case because, although Muslim, that also have a Chinese and Indian population, and they all get along quite well.
All these countries and cultures are described in great detail, and gives us a point of view that Americans do not have.
One reason why this book is accurate because after I have finished reading it, I read in the newspapers how U.S. Air Force reconnaissance planes constantly flies over the South China Sea to spy on the Chinese and test their reaction. It is only a matter of time before the Chinese navy and air forces catches up with us.
Also given are scenarios of China should their economy begin to fail. How likely that is remains to be seen.
When you read the newspapers about the present situation in the South China Sea, I strongly recommend that you pick up this book for a clear point of view, and how China and Southeast Asia sees it.
on April 30, 2014
Kaplan writes for readers interested in issues that may influence US foreign policy years, or even decades into the future. He introduces us to developing nations surrounding the South China Sea and their relationship with their dominant neighbor, China.
Admittedly, the South China Sea is not on the radar of most Americans who might even have difficulty pinpointing it on a world map.. He contends with convincing evidence that it is a naval crossroads as significant to the 21st century as the dominance of the greater Caribbean was to America's evolution as a world power or the Mediterranean was to Europe and the Middle East.
His extensive research and personal experience in these countries offers surprising portraits of countries from Vietnam to Phillipines. His rational, even-handed analysis of expanding Chinese military expenditures and territorial claims provides challenging food for thought. His dramatic contrast between the setting for conferring with worldly Chinese academics who send their children to college in the US and Communist leaders reiterating geography of the Middle Kingdom compresses into a paragraph what others require entire books to convey. We may read in the news about the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, but it is Kaplan who explains the situation that creates the need for more US focus on the Pacific.
This is a thought provoking book that depending on your experience will be very enlightening or challenge your Asian perspective. I highly recommend it.
on July 26, 2014
This book looks the part - it's timely written, concise, well organized chapters that are assigned to each country in the South China Sea. China's relationships between Japan, SK, Myanmar, India, etc. aren't covered.
Each country chapter includes an initial overview but then Kaplan plays judge and determines whether or not a country is "good" or "bad". If a country is good, like Singapore, after the initial introduction the chapter turns into nothing but praise...in the case of Singapore the chapter becomes a puff piece for Lee Kuan Yew. If he doesn't like your country he piles on how bad it is...at one point criticizing the cuisine of the Philippines.
So why the two stars...Kaplan knows his material well and he's an expert but when you write opinions as facts you may run into trouble. I've read a few other books on the countries included in this book, and found there to be a few disconnects between those books and Kaplan's statements. Unfortunately the book on the Philippines was the only one with an overlap of info.
The US ushered Marcos peacefully from power...after Benigno Aquino was assassinated. He mentions this anecdotally several pages later instead of including it in his originally assessment.
Marcos who came into power 70 years after US colonization lead the Philippines down the wrong path because, according to Kaplan, of Spanish legacy influences, not because of US policy and handholding. Kaplan doesn't assign any of the mess that is the Philippines to the US...yet he direct quotes from Stanley Karnow...who does assign a part of the Philippines mess to the US.
These were two examples but once you see how Kaplan writes it became a situation where I was constantly questioning his "facts". I agree with most of his assessments and think he does a service bringing this topic up for discussion but deftly inserts an elitist opinion where simply the facts would have sufficed.
on April 16, 2014
An outstanding book. I now understand why China and Japan are at odds about those rocky island. This book is full of "I never knew that". For instance, the Vietnamese are not angry with us because they won the war and desire good relations with us. Ah, yes, one never forgets losing. Discussions of the countries surrounding the South China Sea, their origins, their history, their politics, and their relations with China are fascinating. The careful explanation of why a war would be a sea war and not a land war and how this can be avoided. Better relations with China, understanding why they historically consider the Sea theirs, and the necessity of good relations with them are eye opening. Read this!
on August 9, 2014
I have read all of Kaplan's books, from his earlier writing, his earlier books are the reason why I keep buying his later books. Kaplan's earlier travelogues, the ones that were more about history and his travels (even the ones where his history wasnt quite perfect), were both well written, fun and interesting in their own way. Too bad that this is not like his earlier works
This book is more about Kaplan-the-serious-strategist-political-wonk that he's been lately focused on. Big surprise, the US needs more spending on defense and more ships! China is inevitably winning the 21st Century! South East Asia -- despite an area of almost a billion people and an economic zone that may catch up to China in overal GDP -- is the Pacific's Caribbean. So in between Kaplan's strange pronouncements on geography -- does any serious historian consider America's domination of the Caribbean as the signal of America's great power status? No? Well Kaplan does!-- and love for authoritarian dictators (He loves Singapore's, Malaysia's and Taiwan's dictator, appreciates Vietnam's and China's dictators, hates Philippines and their democracy though, so unruly!) the book grinds on for far too many words. Stripped of repetition (more on defense! China will dominate South East Asia! Dictatorship -- good!) this is probably a 90 page travelogue.
Even as a serious piece of wonkery this book is only so so, the relative thinness of information on Japan's renewed re-militarization and its potential involvement is disappointing. As is the almost total absence of Indonesia from the picture. If you follow the politics of South East Asia even slightly -- ie a read through an occasional Economist piece, maybe a bloomberg alert -- then only Kaplan's historical anecdotes are worth reading through (which unfortunately themselves are quite rare.)
on April 19, 2014
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.
I must admit a fondness for reading books by Robert Kaplan (as well as his articles) because he brings some things to the table I always appreciate. First off, he brings a good eye to important details to the story he is covering, whether in Europe, Third-world nations I will probably never visit (or really want to for that matter if I have other choices) and places where the story is hidden. Second, Kaplan brings a historical perspective to the events he is discussing and this always captures my interest. Third, he often discusses events in terms of strategy, not just as interesting anecdotes to fill a book - there is a thesis he supports with the narrative as is here in this book. To wit, China is emerging as a burgeoning power in its backyard and other nations in SE Asia don't necessarily like this development.
Here, Kaplan writes another great book on Asian happenings and specifically events in Southeast Asia. Kaplan's thesis is essentially that the American Century in the Pacific is being challenged by a rising China, and the growing counter-weight that China's growth with the other nations in the South China sea arrayed to blunt this rise in power. First off, I love reading through the book because it gives a nice view of the world in which so few Americans (specifically) are even knowledgeable about). Second, the book describes a growing China in terms that are important and not often realized by the kumbaya cheerleaders for China on one hand, and the 'China is the most evil power on earth' crowd on the other hand. Like much of foreign policy discussions, the truth lies in a more cynical and nuanced middle that is achingly realistic about power and foreign policy.
China is certainly a rising power and Kaplan illustrates why throughout the book. I loved his description of how the various nations in SE Asia are being altered both by China's rise in raw economic power and a rise in military power and assertiveness. Kaplan describes this very neatly as China's 'Monroe Doctrine' moment (my words not his) in terms of how a rising nation located in the heart of the South China Sea is beginning to become more assertive in limiting other powerful nations (read the United States Navy) from operating with the relative impunity for much of the last 1/2 century (even withstanding the Soviet blue water navy which beyond submarines was fairly innocuous in projecting power in this region). The United States is not so much being outmatched as it is, in Kaplan's opinion, being out-muscled in an area that is 1/2 a world away for the US Navy, but is China's backyard. This mere fact gives China the kind of opportunity to power its neighbors like the US did in the 19th Century in Latin America and the Caribbean. The main question in reading this book is will the United States have the will and economic wherewithal to maintain a strong presence in the South China Sea. And as Kaplan writes about, this is not because the neighbors to China are not interested in having the US Navy in the area; in fact, the various nations want to encourage American ties, if not formally, then certainly informally. What emerges in the book is the importance of the projection of power of the military as an outgrowth of economic power. This is not because the military will be used in a likely military encounter, but rather because the ability to project military power (and particularly in a naval arena like the South China Sea) enables for unfettered trade beneficial to the military that is being projected.
While the book certainly highlights the many ways China's rising military is being able to assert power around the South China Sea, what also emerges is how China's nominally Communist government is projecting economic power to various states by enabling the use of raw resources, the dumping of goods in such a manner as to significantly hurt local business, and a overall strategy enabling China's absolute rise in a coherent manner. While we Americans see this strategy in shopping at various places around the country, no where is this development more stark than in countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, amongst others.
I have greatly enjoyed Kaplan's latest books, such as Monsoon and the Revenge of Geography for the experience of having a nice guided tour of the emerging world. This book is certainly no exception. I do wish that these book would provide more maps and graphics. I would think that the target reader for this book would be those readers with a working knowledge of the geography of the area, a working knowledge of the history of the various nations in the South China Sea (though Kaplan certainly explains how certain historical aspects impact the present) and, naturally, an interest in foreign affairs. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this very good book.
Reading daily headlines and news stories in the major newspapers one would have no real idea of the characters of the states and the general situation in Southeast Asia. Robert Kaplan in this work provides a kind of primer to countries most of us know little about, places like Malaysia, Singapore, India, China, Phillipines, Japan the Koreas.He reveals the distinctive characte of each of these societies.He outlines the situation today wherein a growing China is making its military presence greater in the South China Sea. It raises the question of the U.S. role in this situation and its defense for traditional friends like Japan.It in a sense acknowledges the Chinese claim for pre-eminence. Kaplan who has traveled and written about many different remote regions of the world provides a great deal of information about places most in the West knows little about. He makes historical contrasts as for instance between the land- based European conflicts of the twentieth century and the prospected sea-based conflict of the twentieth century. All in all I suspect the book will provide a kind of education for the non-experts a lively and complicated introduction to an area of the world of growing importance to humanity.