Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 256 pp., $26)
For just over a century, the kingdom of Sarawak on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo was ruled by a family of Englishmen. The “White Rajahs,” as the Brooke family were known, thrived in the overlapping and patchy maritime world dominated by indigenous rulers (such as the sultan of Brunei), local strongmen, and British imperialists. The Brookes of Sarawak, who surrendered their domain to the United Kingdom in 1946, stand as a testament to the fluid nature of power and identity in Asia, a region still riven by territorial disputes and fettered to history.
The Asia that has dominated headlines, primarily economic ones, for the past 30 years and more is largely the Asia of Japan, China, and Korea. The emergence of Japan into economic superstardom in the 1960s and 1970s fueled a generation of development throughout Asia. For the past 15 years, the story has been overwhelmingly about China. For many observers, business and trade spell the totality of their interest. In recent years, the rapid growth of China’s military might has added a different angle, one far more menacing to the simpler narrative of an Asia smoothly modernizing and integrating into global trade and political networks. With Asia’s diversity and vibrancy, moreover, there is always yet another story, another interest to absorb the attention: the surreal totalitarianism of North Korea, the kaleidoscopic anarchy of India, or the enduring appeal of Japanese aesthetics.
One area of this vast region, however, has received far less attention than the rest: Southeast Asia. Ever since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, America and much of the rest of the world have turned their eyes away from the patchwork of states and archipelagos that range from the eastern terminus of the Indian Ocean to the entrance to the East China Sea. Khmer Rouge horrors, revolt in Indonesia, the wealth of Singapore: All were the concern only of those directly involved in trade, diplomacy, or study in the subregion.
Such comparative isolation has rapidly dissipated, argues veteran journalist and travel writer Robert Kaplan, in his new book, Asia’s Cauldron. Kaplan, known for his reportage on the Balkans, Central Asia, and America’s far-flung military forces, has spent the past several years focusing on Asia. This book is a sequel of sorts to 2010’s Monsoon, which focused on the Indian Ocean and the future of a more integrated, yet also more contested, Asia. Here, however, Kaplan turns to the far less known region of Southeast Asia.
With its 600 million people and over $2 trillion in GDP, Southeast Asia is reaping the benefits of globalization. Yet the rise of China threatens to make its core, the South China Sea, “the military front of the coming decades,” asserts Kaplan. The primary reason is that “China’s position vis-à-vis the South China Sea is akin to America’s position vis-à-vis the Caribbean Sea in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Unlike the Caribbean, however, the South China Sea is of critical geostrategic importance, being the “throat” (in Kaplan’s word) of the western Pacific and Indian oceans, the point where the global sea routes that keep the world’s economy humming coalesce. Whether it’s a question of energy imports traveling east to China’s ravenous factories, or millions of tons of finished goods being shipped to all points of the globe, consumers, financiers, traders, and manufacturers all depend on an open and stable South China Sea zone.
As in his previous books, Kaplan is an on-the-ground reporter, and each of the core chapters of Asia’s Cauldron focuses colorfully — through interviews and observation — on a nodal point of the South China Sea region: rapidly modernizing Vietnam, multiethnic and economically dynamic Malaysia, the pure entrepôt of Singapore, the ever-struggling former American colony of the Philippines, and Taiwan (Asia’s “Berlin”). Each is in ferment, responding to modernity and globalization, but each also is reactive to the story China is making in Southeast Asia. For Vietnam and the Philippines, China looms large as a security threat, primarily because of maritime disputes (such as that involving the Spratly Islands). Malaysia and Singapore have largely positive relations with China and are able to focus primarily on continued development and on taking advantage of being situated at the epicenter of Asia’s trade routes. As for Taiwan, Kaplan falls in the camp of those who see a version of an Asian risorgimento coming, in which Taiwan is in effect unified with the mainland, if not politically then on security and economic affairs, which is what really counts.
It is Taiwan’s apparent fate — being “Finlandized” in the face of China’s overwhelming power and influence — that may spell the broad tale for Southeast Asia. Unlike Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia, which can play independent roles thanks to their size and tight alliances with the United States, the nations of Southeast Asia have little hope of opposing those policies of China that they fear, or of avoiding becoming too dependent on China economically. Finlandization not only would secure Chinese hegemony throughout Southeast Asia but also make America’s role, especially its security presence, largely moot.
In the end, it is America’s role in maintaining stability in Asia, primarily through our security alliances, that makes the issue of China’s rise, territorial disputes, and Finlandization of its neighbors of such concern to Kaplan. Even were the end result of Chinese dominance to be benign, it is the transformation of geopolitics in the 21st century that fascinates and unnerves him and so many other writers.
Perhaps that is why his first chapter, “The Humanist Dilemma,” is by far the most thought-provoking. For those of us who have spent decades working on Asian issues, China’s rise provides a particular challenge of interpretation. Kaplan has done a service in this chapter by laying out the ways in which China’s threat to Asia’s stability is both traditional and revolutionary. And it should be noted that Kaplan clearly sees China as the “only indigenous great-power threat” in the South China Sea.
Driven by its century of shame and also by the desire to protect its far-flung trade networks (primarily involving energy imports), China has turned to history to validate its claims on the South China Sea. That, of course, has driven a response from nations throughout all of Asia, from India, which will be the world’s largest spender on naval weapons over the next decade, to Japan, which has its own flashpoint territorial dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea. The smaller nations of Southeast Asia do what they can but more often suffer what they must (in Kaplan’s echo of the Melian dialogue in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War).
Yet for Americans, who were driven into global politics in the 20th century by great ideological crusades, the China threat is ambiguous. Not only is China the most important trading partner of the United States, its military rise provides no ideological challenge. Today’s great game in Asia is bloodless, so to speak, a contest that Kaplan describes as “void of moral struggles,” in which humanists and intellectuals find it hard to get their ardor up. Asia, never short of religious missionaries, lacks political zealots in the West who would make of it a cause central to their own identity.
In some ways, of course, that allows for a more considered response to China’s challenge. The Obama administration’s “pivot” is one example, as was the Bush administration’s attempt to co-opt China into a more realistic working relationship. For fire-breathing hawks, China just can’t quite deliver the threatening goods, especially in a world where Vladimir Putin has launched three major invasions of sovereign and semi-autonomous territory in the past decade. The drums of war in Asia may beat, but if they do, they are soft enough to allow for strategic ambiguity to shape American policy.
The danger in such a measured approach is that Washington risks having the momentum in Asia shift against it. Cautious policy begets ever more provocative action by Beijing, such as the air-defense identification zone established late last year over the East China Sea. An American policy that prioritizes the working relationship with China may make even more likely the Finlandization it seeks to avoid. Nor are matters helped by the gap between the rhetoric of the pivot and the reality of a cautious response to China’s provocations. While there may be prudence in such a stance, Kaplan reminds us that stability in the South China Sea may demand that we give up some of our most cherished ideals. That is the source of perhaps the greatest tension among those in Washington struggling to find the best way to ensure peace and prosperity in this most dynamic region of the world.
Kaplan does not provide many suggestions for responding to this new world shaped by China. Policy wonks will therefore be disappointed with what reads like a value-free approach. (They will also regret the absence of Indonesia from the discussion, though it was covered in Monsoon.) Yet Kaplan has always acted more as a recorder of contemporary trends than as an advocate for any particular approach to coping with them. In reminding Americans that their age of “simple dominance” must pass, he avoids joining those groping in the dark and almost takes the detached stance of a historian of coming decades, describing how that future Asia came to be. This acceptance of Asia’s complexity and the limits of influence that any outside power has may well be the most valuable lesson in this brisk book.
– Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.