Book Review – Asia’s cauldron: The South China Sea and the end of a stable Pacific

Robert D. Kaplan’s 'Asia’s cauldron: The South China Sea and the end of a stable Pacific' is available at all major bookstores. – The Malaysian Insider pic, May 9, 2014.Robert D. Kaplan’s 'Asia’s cauldron: The South China Sea and the end of a stable Pacific' is available at all major bookstores. – The Malaysian Insider pic, May 9, 2014.The South China Sea dispute is a reminder of how fragile our world is: at any given time a superpower can adopt a muscular response in its quest for resources at the expense of its weaker neighbours.

This Pacific seascape – approximately 3.5 million square km – is the centre of a row between China and Southeast Asia, based on the former’s claim of what it calls the nine-dash line, or the “cow’s tongue”. It’s a demarcation rooted in history and encompasses basically the entire South China Sea, covering areas contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Robert D. Kaplan, in “Asia’s cauldron: The South China Sea and the end of a stable Pacific”, writes that the spat is “all about trade and business”. The South China Sea’s currencies are, after all, hydrocarbon and fishery. Take the latest World Bank’s estimates, for example, which say that the sea holds at least seven billion barrels of petroleum and approximately 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The kicker here is that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) doesn’t recognise China’s nine-dash line. For Asean, their claims are based on the Exclusive Economic Zone found in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a document which China obviously doesn’t agree with.

Yet Kaplan insists in his latest book, cruising in at 256 pages, that China is the main player with Asean and that even the United States is in the shadows. His first two and concluding chapters are dedicated exactly to the ideal that it is “first and foremost about the destiny of China, the geopolitical hinge on which war or peace in the region rests”.

In between the China-centric apologia are chapters that deal with the contesters. Kaplan tempers journalistic flair with historical data and political insight as to how these smaller nations would affect the sea dispute.

Kaplan does well in assessing Vietnam and the Philippines through this device. He observes Vietnam’s nationalism as one of the major factors to their claim of certain parts of the sea as well as the Philippines’s alliance with the United States albeit being the weakest nation in the region and the ideal pushover for China.

However, he partially strays from the topic in his dealing with Taiwan. The best analysis for Taiwan is found in the second chapter, where Kaplan discusses the “Finlandization” of the island-state by China. And he goes totally off tangent with Malaysia and Singapore by only providing historical data and some unique perspectives of Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership – their relationship to China and the US, if any, were mere notes complementing Kaplan’s historical survey of both countries.

In fact this is the only critique one can observe about “Asia’s cauldron”, where the Asean subject is more towards the contesters rather than the contest. The all-time important topic of the coalition’s role and its weaknesses are merely skimmed over as evident in the final chapter.

Also, Kaplan views the dispute as one who subscribes to realism, meaning a lot of emphasis on military expansion and an anarchic system where the world system is leaderless.

So he downplays the US’s role as the pivot of the global economy and puts China as a leader in the dispute, but not in the sense where China is the ultimate leader as well, which of course makes this book an interesting read.

Prose in “Asia’s cauldron” is highly readable. For novices of foreign policy, this book serves as a good platform. Politicos may want to supplement their reading with other more detailed work such as from David Rosenberg or Joshua Kurlantzick.

However, the one thing readers can take away from “Asia’s cauldron” is that geopolitics is no longer confined to groupies of foreign policy; it’s now every day speech.

Kaplan wraps up his research on the premise that no matter what, Beijing will never go to war with any of its Asean counterparts or even Washington over the South China Sea. True. But, one only has to remember that 40 years ago, 74 US-backed South Vietnamese forces died in a military clash due to China occupying the Paracel Islands; and both navies clashed again in 1988 over a dispute in the Spratly Islands, leaving 64 Vietnamese sailors dead.

Robert D. Kaplan’s “Asia’s cauldron: The South China Sea and the end of a stable Pacific” is published by Random House and priced at RM69.90. It is available at all major bookstores. – May 9, 2014.