Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the End of Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan

Robert D. Kaplan is an American journalist whose articles about U.S. and Chinese power have spurred debates in the media, academia and high levels of governments.  Most of his works talk about the re-emergence of tensions, maybe they be historic or cultural, that were suspended temporarily during the Cold War. In his book, “Asia’s Cauldron”, had predicted the coming of South China Sea dispute, referring to it as  the “simmering pot of potential conflict”, i.e. a cauldron. 

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source: http://www.cnas.org

Robert D. Kaplan in his book Asia’s Cauldron highlights few important points. Firstly, Chinese supremacy in the South China Sea will help make China an equal to the western powers. Second, the primary risk for China’s neighbours is not invasion, but instead being obliged for economic reasons to favour. Since China has the objective to achieve a peaceful rise, it would prefer that its smaller neighbours are okay with its perspectives on the territorial disputes in the region. Thirdly, the US must be prepared to allow, in some measure, for a rising Chinese navy to assume its rightful position, as the representative of the region’s largest home-grown power.

The author draws a parallel between the United States and China. According to him, the domination of the Greater Caribbean Basin gave the United States control over the Western Hemisphere. This allowed it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere as well. Similarly, he says that since the South China Sea links the trade of the Pacific and Indian Oceans; if China ever replaces the U.S. Navy as the dominant power in the South China Sea or even become equal with it, this would open up geostrategic possibilities for China similar to what America attained upon its dominance of the Caribbean. Because of this, the South China Sea is “on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world.” This is what Kaplan also suggests in the title of the book, calling it “Asia’s Cauldron”.

Robert D. Kaplan allocates a chapter to each of the bordering countries examining their historical roots; current political, economic, military and diplomatic posture; and consequent claims to the various islands, reefs, and shoals within those waters. Although Kaplan was trying to examine countries separately I think that the book rambled from one country to the next in the South China Sea region without pulling it all together and that the book is more of a travelogue than strategic overview.

Even though with Asia’s Cauldron, Robert D. Kaplan comprehensibly and convincingly redirects our attention to areas filled with promise and risk, few of Kaplan’s arguments 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 reduces the prospects for conflict’. This contradicts his other claims like the ‘isolated nature of naval and air power might make the use of force more tempting’.

Kaplan does not discuss the history or role of the United States in the region very thoroughly. 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 exploration flights in the region to monitor China’s naval activities as mentioned in the book. Hence we cannot ignore US when it comes to the South China Sea and its nation states.

There is hardly any discussion about the territorial claims themselves. If anything, the book focuses on the people involved in the disputes, not the disputes themselves. He merely 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, there could have been much more rigorous detail. Kaplan does not end the book with grand foreign policy proposals that the Obama administration or State Department should take up, which is something the reader might except. This does leave the reader wondering how the U.S. should proceed in the future especially since one of the disputants, the Philippines, is a treaty ally).

Kaplan writes this book like a debater to prove his point and dismisses issues that do not agree with his premise to back his points. Kaplan does not seem to consider issues that disagree with his premise. Some statement do not seem quite true or are over stated and so sections of the book do not stand up to scrutiny. For instance, Kaplan suggests in the book that a “future naval war” in this region will be a logical clean-type war and the rest of the world will be able to learn from that this area of Asia is rational. I believe any wars that may occur will not be predicable and I doubt they will be a clean and sanitized naval war as Kaplan appears to believe is possible. Wars, and their effects by their nature are unpredictable. I also think this book will likely suit generalist readers more than Asia scholars since the book does not go into sufficient detail for Asia specialists or those who have studied the South China Sea for years in depth.

This book of his is similar to s few of his other books. For example, Monsoon in which “Kaplan exposes the effects of population growth, climate change, and extremist politics on this unstable region, demonstrating why Americans can no longer afford to ignore this important area of the world.” Many of his books revolve around the similar theme, geopolitics. I would recommend this book to someone who is an avid reader, interested in international relations and to someone who would want to know more about how geography plays an important role in world politics. It is slightly difficult to grasp if one does not understand terms related to international relations but is over all an interesting read.

The author, Kalyani Menon,  is a law student at Jindal Global Law School.

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