Much attention has been focused recently on the South China Sea which, Robert D. Kaplan claims is “on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world”. The Spratly Islands, the Paracels, the Pratas, mere specks in an immense body of water, are familiar names to all of us today. Geopolitical cross currents between a rising China and a U.S. that is in relative decline are being played out there. A recent report in the Financial Times states that the U.S. is increasing surveillance aircraft and naval operations in the contested areas of the South China Sea to curb China’s advances.
With “the old order of American military unipolarity in the waters of the western Pacific slowly fading”, should the world fear that these overlapping, intractable claims will inevitably lead to war? Robert Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst at the global intelligence company Stratfor, concludes that it will not. But will the countries touched by those waters be compelled to submit to the will of China? Here Kaplan draws on a Vietnamese proverb – “a distant water can’t put out a nearby fire”; the distant water is the United States which is geographically too far to provide the security umbrella tha the smaller nations in the South China Sea require.
China, Kaplan informs us, will have as many submarines as the U.S. Navy by 2020; moreover the U.S. Navy has shrunk from almost 600 ships in the Reagan era to under 300 today. There is no question that China will be able to deny the U.S. unimpeded access to parts of the South China Sea
But the author is optimistic that this will not lead to outright war and there are some reasons to suggest that Kaplan’s optimism is well founded. In the first place there is in the words of John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, “the stopping power of water”. While the growth of naval power is worrying, it is less so than the expansion of land armies in the Europe of the early 20th century because the oceans will act as a barrier against aggression. Kaplan does not see similarities between a rising China and “imperial Japan”. This is the author’s conclusion and not heavily substantiated by historical data; as a reader of Indian origin I paused to reflect on the expansion of Great Britain’s global power which was bolstered by the strength of its naval power.
Kaplan maintains that China will not risk a military showdown with Washington. Instead it will attempt to “Finlandise” southeast Asian countries which will be allowed to maintain “nominal independence, but in the end abide by foreign policy rules set by Beijing”.
Kaplan’s book flows from the mind of a realist and he aptly draws a parallel to the U.S. when he states 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”. He persuades the reader to accept that China is pursuing its own version of the Monroe Doctrine by which the U.S. replaced European nations as the supreme power in the western hemisphere.
Kaplan’s approach is refreshing in its pragmatism – too much ink has been spent on portraying China’s rise as something draconian which the world should fear. Kaplan believes that China, as it rises economically, will behave in a manner that draws comparison with other rising powers – and why shouldn’t they? Up to a point, the world would do well to allow China to assume its rightful position as the region’s largest power. If Kaplan is optimistic on the issue of an outright war, it is because Asia is consumed with trade and because of the absence of any ideological struggle.
Kaplan says “there is nothing unusually aggressive” about China’s desire to prevent other powers from taking advantage as the colonial powers did over the last two centuries. The South China Sea links the trade of the Pacific and Indian oceans – $5,300 billion of goods cross the South China Sea each year.
The author sees the rise of China as the dominant power in the region as an inevitability and concludes that just as the U.S., once it had established dominance over the Caribbean, left those countries to govern in the way they wished, China is likely to exercise its domination over the waters through which its energy and industrial resources are transported. Kaplan’s tone is pragmatic and not moralistic.
Kaplan takes us on a journey of southeast Asian countries and the styles of government that have evolved there. His observations are astute and his admiration for authoritarian leaders – Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiao Ping – quite unabashed. The book is part travelogue and part geopolitical primer – the lyrical quality of the prologue as the author describes the champa civilization of Vietnam is memorable. But the book rambles in parts, and the chapters on Singapore and Taiwan seem somewhat irrelevant to the main theme of the book.
Kaplan’s conclusion is clear and simple – “the age of simple American dominance, as it existed through all of the Cold War decades and immediately beyond, will likely have to pass.”Asian, Latin American and African readers of the book may ask what was “simple” about American dominance. Chinese readers will be relieved to see that the book does not demonise China or present a dystopian future just because China is a rising power.
Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, New York, March 2014
Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies.
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