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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY FINANCIAL TIMES

From Robert D. Kaplan, named one of the world’s Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, comes a penetrating look at the volatile region that will dominate the future of geopolitical conflict.

 
Over the last decade, the center of world power has been quietly shifting from Europe to Asia. With oil reserves of several billion barrels, an estimated nine hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and several centuries’ worth of competing territorial claims, the South China Sea in particular is a simmering pot of potential conflict. The underreported military buildup in the area where the Western Pacific meets the Indian Ocean means that it will likely be a hinge point for global war and peace for the foreseeable future.
 
In Asia’s Cauldron, Robert D. Kaplan offers up a vivid snapshot of the nations surrounding the South China Sea, the conflicts brewing in the region at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and their implications for global peace and stability. One of the world’s most perceptive foreign policy experts, Kaplan interprets America’s interests in Asia in the context of an increasingly assertive China. He explains how the region’s unique geography fosters the growth of navies but also impedes aggression. And he draws a striking parallel between China’s quest for hegemony in the South China Sea and the United States’ imperial adventure in the Caribbean more than a century ago.
 
To understand the future of conflict in East Asia, Kaplan argues, one must understand the goals and motivations of its leaders and its people. Part travelogue, part geopolitical primer, Asia’s Cauldron takes us on a journey through the region’s boom cities and ramshackle slums: from Vietnam, where the superfueled capitalism of the erstwhile colonial capital, Saigon, inspires the geostrategic pretensions of the official seat of government in Hanoi, to Malaysia, where a unique mix of authoritarian Islam and Western-style consumerism creates quite possibly the ultimate postmodern society; and from Singapore, whose “benevolent autocracy” helped foster an economic miracle, to the Philippines, where a different brand of authoritarianism under Ferdinand Marcos led not to economic growth but to decades of corruption and crime.
 
At a time when every day’s news seems to contain some new story—large or small—that directly relates to conflicts over the South China Sea, Asia’s Cauldron is an indispensable guide to a corner of the globe that will affect all of our lives for years to come.

Praise for Asia’s Cauldron
 
Asia’s Cauldron is a short book with a powerful thesis, and it stands out for its clarity and good sense. . . . If you are doing business in China, traveling in Southeast Asia or just obsessing about geopolitics, you will want to read it.” The New York Times Book Review

“Kaplan has established himself as one of our most consequential geopolitical thinkers. . . . [ Asia’s Cauldron] is part treatise on geopolitics, part travel narrative. Indeed, he writes in the tradition of the great travel writers.” The Weekly Standard
 
“Kaplan’s fascinating book is a welcome challenge to the pessimists who see only trouble in China’s rise and the hawks who view it as malign.” The Economist
 
“Muscular, deeply knowledgeable . . . Kaplan is an ultra-realist [who] takes a non-moralistic stance on questions of power and diplomacy.” Financial Times

Review

“This is the latest in a series of insightful books . . . in which Robert D. Kaplan . . . tries to explain how geography determines destiny—and what we should be doing about it. Asia’s Cauldron is a short book with a powerful thesis, and it stands out for its clarity and good sense from the great mass of Western writing on what Chinese politicians have taken to calling their ‘peaceful development.’ If you are doing business in China, traveling in Southeast Asia or just obsessing about geopolitics, you will want to read it. . . . Throughout the book, Kaplan tempers hard-nose geopolitics with an engaging mix of history and travelogue.” The New York Times Book Review
 
“Kaplan has established himself as one of our most consequential geopolitical thinkers. . . . [ Asia’s Cauldron] is part treatise on geopolitics, part travel narrative. Indeed, he writes in the tradition of the great travel writers.” The Weekly Standard
 
“Kaplan’s fascinating book is a welcome challenge to the pessimists who see only trouble in China’s rise and the hawks who view it as malign.” The Economist
 
“Muscular, deeply knowledgeable . . . Kaplan is an ultra-realist [who] takes a non-moralistic stance on questions of power and diplomacy.” Financial Times
 
“A riveting, multitextured look at an underexamined region of the world and, perhaps, at the ‘anxious, complicated world’ of the future.” —Booklist

“Part travelogue, part history, and part geostrategic analysis, Asia’s Cauldron sets some lofty goals for itself and largely succeeds in presenting a holistic look at the competing diplomatic and economic interests of the nations along the South China Sea. . . . This volume is an excellent primer to the conflicting ambitions, fears, and futures of the nations bordering this vital sea-lane, which will remain one of the most dangerous flashpoints of the coming decade.” New York Journal of Books
 
“In reminding Americans that their age of ‘simple dominance’ must pass, [Kaplan] 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.” National Review

Asia’s Cauldron is a perfect summation of the present turbulent moment in history, when the World War II security structure is beginning a rapid transformation. Kaplan engages the striking possibilities of where the current confrontation between China and Japan could lead, and underscores the point that this is a lot more significant than a simple border dispute.” —Paul Bracken, Yale University, author of The Second Nuclear Age
 
“Master global strategist Robert D. Kaplan turns his gaze to the bubbling heat of the South China Sea in his latest tour de force. Asia’s Cauldron deconstructs the extreme volatility of this enormous, dangerous, and vital maritime space. By thoughtfully pulling apart the complex tangle of argument and accusation among the nations of the region, he helps provide a well-charted course for the United States in this most turbulent geopolitical zone of the twenty-first-century.” Admiral James Stavridis, United States Navy (Ret.), dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2009–2013
 
“Robert D. Kaplan has done it again: he has written an engaging—but disturbing—book about an area of the world that to most Americans is a distant rimland. Yet in an era of emerging Sino-American competition, the larger Southeast Asian region could well become the explosive cynosure of new great-power rivalries. Asia’s Cauldron is a wonderful and captivating guide that illumines the myriad colliding forces that will shape the future of the Indo-Pacific.” —Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

About the Author

Robert D. Kaplan is the bestselling author of nineteen books on foreign affairs and travel translated into many languages, including  The Good AmericanThe Revenge of Geography Asia’s Cauldron, Monsoon, The Coming Anarchy, and Balkan Ghosts. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupe Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. For three decades he reported on foreign affairs for  The Atlantic. He was a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel.  Foreign Policy magazine twice named him one of the world’s Top 100 Global Thinkers.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

9780812994322|excerpt

Kaplan / ASIA''S CAULDRON

Chapter I

The Humanist Dilemma

Europe is a landscape; East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the twentieth and twenty-­first centuries. The most contested areas of the globe in the last century lay on dry land in Europe, particularly in the flat expanse that rendered the eastern and western borders of Germany artificial, and thus exposed to the intensive to-­ing and fro-­ing of armies. But starting in the last phase of the Cold War the demographic, economic, and military axis of the earth has measurably shifted to the opposite end of Eurasia, where the spaces between the principal nodes of population are overwhelmingly maritime. By maritime I mean sea, air, and outer space: for ever since the emergence of aircraft carriers in the early decades of the twentieth century, sea and air battle formations have become increasingly inextricable, with outer space now added to the mix because of navigational and other assistance to ships and planes from satellites. Hence naval has become shorthand for several dimensions of military activity. And make no mistake, naval is the operative word. Because of the way that geography illuminates and sets priorities, the physical contours of East Asia argue for a naval century, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula being the striking exception.

East Asia is a vast, yawning expanse, stretching from Arctic to Antarctic reaches—­from the Kuril Islands southward to New Zealand—­and characterized by a shattered array of coastlines and archipelagoes, themselves separated by great seas and distances. Even accounting for the fact of how technology has compressed distance, with missiles and fighter jets—­the latter easily refueled in the air—­rendering any geography closed and claustrophobic, the sea acts as a barrier to aggression, at least to the degree that dry land does not. The sea, unlike land, creates clearly defined borders, and thus has the potential to reduce conflict. Then there is speed to consider. Even the fastest warships travel comparatively slowly, 35 knots, say, reducing the chance of miscalculations and thus giving diplomats more hours—­and days even—­to reconsider decisions. Moreover, navies and air forces simply do not occupy territory the way armies do. It is because of the seas around East Asia that the twenty-­first century has a better chance than the twentieth of avoiding great military conflagrations.

Of course, East Asia has seen great military conflagrations in the twentieth century that the seas did not prevent: the Russo-­Japanese War (1904–­1905); almost a half century of civil war in China that followed the collapse of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty; the conquests of Imperial Japan and World War II in the Pacific, which followed from them; the Korean War (1950–­1953); the wars in Cambodia, Laos, and two in Vietnam involving the French and the Americans from the 1950s through the 1970s. What unites all of these conflicts is that each was organic to the formation of a state or empire, or similarly to the process of decolonization. A number of these conflicts were internal, contested by both conventional and unconventional ground forces, where navies played extremely limited roles. The fact that the grand geography of East Asia is primarily maritime had little impact on these essentially domestic wars. (I include Korea in this category: for the conflict between the North and the South was mainly fought on land, and was integral to the formation of separate states following the long Japanese occupation of 1910 to 1945.) But now the age of national consolidation throughout East Asia lies behind us. East Asian militaries, rather than focusing inward with low-­tech armies, are focusing outward with high-­tech navies and air forces. Yet as I will explain, they are not likely to reenact in terms of scale the naval conflicts of the Russo-­Japanese War and World War II in the Pacific.

The Russo-­Japanese War and the Pacific Theater in World War II were the upshots in significant measure of Japanese militarism, for which the seas offered no defense; in fact, the seas were fundamental to the expansion of an island nation that required large stores of oil from distant shores for its rampaging armed forces. But China, now the rising military power in the Pacific, demonstrates far less aggression than did Imperial Japan following the Meiji Restoration: even as China’s military (particularly its navy) expands, fascism as in Japan is almost surely not on the horizon in the Middle Kingdom. As for the comparison between China and Imperial Germany prior to World War I that many make, whereas Germany was primarily a land power, owing to the geography of Europe, China will be primarily a naval power, owing to the geography of East Asia. It is this geography, I repeat, that will foster the growth of navies, which, while a worrisome trend in its own right, is still not as worrisome as the growth of armies in continental Europe at the beginning of the last century.

Truly, military power is moving to Asia, but the worst of the twentieth century might be avoided, thanks generally to what the University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer calls the “stopping power of water.”1 Water, Mearsheimer explains, is an impediment to invasion because while a state can build a naval force and transport an army across the sea with it, such a state will find it much more difficult to land an army on a hostile shore, and then move it inland to subdue permanently a hostile population.

For example, the Taiwan Strait is only a hundred miles wide, making it one of the narrower waterways in the Western Pacific, but it is still almost four times wider than the English Channel, across which came the Allied invasion. China may in a decade or so be able to defeat Taiwan in a war, U.S. assistance to Taiwan notwithstanding. But occupying Taiwan would be far more difficult, and thus will likely never be attempted. This would not be the case if Taiwan were not an island with one hundred miles of water between it and the mainland. So it goes with the maritime distances between Japan and Korea, between South Korea and China, Japan’s Ryuku Islands and China, China’s Hainan Island and Vietnam, and so on. With postcolonial wars obviously no longer on the horizon, China however truculent is no Imperial Japan, and East Asia’s maritime geography argues in favor of naval competition but militates against amphibious landings in heavily populated areas.

What will this purely naval competition look like? To find out we must examine more closely the geography of East Asia.

East Asia can be divided into two general areas: Northeast Asia dominated by the Korean Peninsula, and Southeast Asia dominated by the South China Sea. Northeast Asia pivots on the destiny of North Korea, a totalitarian and hermitic state that combines communism with national fascism. Such a state has dim prospects in a world governed by rampant capitalism and electronic communication. Were North Korea to collapse, Chinese, American, and South Korean ground forces might meet up in the peninsula’s northern half in the mother of all humanitarian interventions, even as they carve out territory for themselves in the course of feeding the hungry. Naval issues would be distinctly secondary. But an eventual reunification of Korea would bring naval issues to the fore, with a Greater Korea, China, and Japan in delicate equipoise separated by the Sea of Japan and the Yellow and Bohai seas. In sum, because North Korea still exists, the Cold War phase of Northeast Asian history is not over, and thus land power will come to dominate the headlines in the area before sea power will.

Contrarily, Southeast Asia is already deep into a post–­Cold War phase of history. That is what makes it so critical. Vietnam dominates the western shore of the South China Sea. Once the preeminent foreign symbol of domestic turmoil inside America, Vietnam has been—­until recent years at least—­a capitalist dynamo seeking closer military ties to the United States, in order to balance against China. China, consolidated as a dynastic state by Mao Zedong after decades of chaos, and made into the world’s most dynamic economy by the liberalizations of Deng Xiaoping, is now pressing outward with its navy to the First Island Chain in the Western Pacific. Then there is the demographic Muslim behemoth of Indonesia, which, having sustained endless decades of left-­ and right-­wing authoritarian rule during the Cold War, could possibly emerge as a second “India,” that is, a vigorous and stable democracy that has the potential to project power through its growing economy. Singapore and Malaysia, meanwhile, move forward economically in devotion to the city-­state-­cum-­trading-­state model, through varying blends of democracy and authoritarianism. Therefore, the composite picture is of a cluster of states that, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state building mostly behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe: it is here in Southeast Asia, with its nearly 600 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographical meeting place of all these states is maritime: the South China Sea.

The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans—­the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce. Here is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, punctuated by the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar straits. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide.2 The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea.3 Whereas in the Persian Gulf only energy is transported, in the South China Sea you have energy, finished goods, and unfinished goods.

In addition to centrality of location, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If Chinese calculations are correct that the South China Sea will ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil (and there is some serious doubt about these estimates), then the South China Sea contains more oil than any area of the globe except Saudi Arabia. Some Chinese observers have called the South China Sea “the second Persian Gulf.”4 If there really is so much oil in the South China Sea, then China will have partially alleviated its “Malacca dilemma”—­its reliance on the narrow and vulnerable Strait of Malacca for so much of its energy needs coming from the Middle East. And the China National Offshore Oil Corporation has invested $20 billion in the belief that such amounts of oil really do exist in the South China Sea.5 China is desperate for new energy. Chinese oil reserves account for only 1.1 percent of the world total, while it consumes over 10 percent of world oil production and over 20 percent of all the energy consumed on the planet.6

It is not only location and energy reserves that promise to give the South China Sea critical geostrategic importance, it is the territorial disputes surrounding these waters, home to more than two hundred small islands, rocks, and coral reefs, only about three dozen of which are permanently above water. Yet these specks of land, buffeted by typhoons, are valuable mainly because of the oil and natural gas that might lie nearby in the intricate, folded layers of rock beneath the sea. Brunei claims a southern reef of the Spratly Islands. Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys. The Philippines claims eight islands in the Spratlys and significant portions of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Taiwan, and China each claims much of the South China Sea, as well as all of the Spratly and Paracel island groups. In the middle of 2010 there was quite a stir when China was said to have called the South China Sea a “core interest.” It turns out that Chinese officials never quite said that: no matter. Chinese maps have been consistent. Beijing claims to own what it calls its “historic line”: that is, the heart of the entire South China Sea in a grand loop—­the “cow’s tongue” as the loop is called—­surrounding these island groups from China’s Hainan Island south 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia. The result is that all of these littoral states are more or less arrayed against China, and dependent upon the United States for diplomatic and military backing. For example, Vietnam and Malaysia are seeking to divide all of the seabed and subsoil resources of the southern part of the South China Sea between mainland Southeast Asia and the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo: this has elicited a furious diplomatic response from China.7 These conflicting claims are likely to become more acute as energy consumption in developing Asian countries is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half of that growth.8

“Paradoxically, if the postmodern age is dominated by globalization,” writes the British naval expert Geoffrey Till, then “everything that supports” globalization, such as trade routes and energy deposits, becomes fraught with competition. And when it comes to trade routes, 90 percent of all commercial goods that travel from one continent to another do so by sea. This heightened maritime awareness that is a product of globalization comes at a time when a host of relatively new and independent states in Southeast Asia, which only recently have had the wherewithal to flex their muscles at sea, are making territorial claims against each other that in the days of the British Empire were never an issue, because of the supremacy of the Crown globally and its emphasis on free trade and freedom of navigation.9 This muscle flexing takes the form of “routinized” close encounters between warships of different nations at sea, creating an embryonic risk of armed conflict.10

One high-­ranking official of a South China Sea littoral state was particularly blunt during an off-­the-­record conversation I had in 2011, saying, “The Chinese never give justifications for their claims. They have a real Middle Kingdom mentality, and are dead set against taking these disputes to court. China,” this official went on, “denies us our right on our own continental shelf. But we will not be treated like Tibet or Xinjiang.” This official said that China is as tough with a country like the Philippines as it is with Vietnam, because while the latter is historically and geographically in a state of intense competition with China, the former is just a weak state that can be intimidated. “There are just too many claimants to the waters in the South China Sea. The complexity of the issues mitigates against an overall solution, so China simply waits until it becomes stronger. Economically, all these countries will come to be dominated by China,” the official continued, unless of course the Chinese economy itself unravels. Once China’s underground submarine base is completed on Hainan Island, “China will be more able to do what it wants.” Meanwhile, more American naval vessels are visiting the area, “so the disputes are being internationalized.” Because there is no practical political or judicial solution, “we support the status quo.”

“If that fails, what is Plan B for dealing with China?” I asked.

“Plan B is the U.S. Navy—­Pacific Command. But we will publicly remain neutral in any U.S.-­China dispute.” To make certain that I got the message, this official said: “An American military presence is needed to countervail China, but we won’t vocalize that.” The withdrawal of even one U.S. aircraft carrier strike group from the Western Pacific is a “game changer.”

In the interim, the South China Sea has become an armed camp, even as the scramble for reefs is mostly over. China has confiscated twelve geographical features, Taiwan one, the Vietnamese twenty-­one, the Malaysians five, and the Philippines nine. In other words, facts have already been created on the ground. Perhaps there can still be sharing arrangements for the oil and natural gas fields. But here it is unclear what, for instance, countries with contentious claims coupled with especially tense diplomatic relations like Vietnam and China will agree upon.

Take the Spratlys, with significant oil and natural gas deposits, which are claimed in full by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and in part by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. China has built concrete helipads and military structures on seven reefs and shoals. On Mischief Reef, which China occupied under the nose of the Philippine navy in the 1990s, China has constructed a three-­story building and five octagonal concrete structures, all for military use. On Johnson Reef, China put up a structure armed with high-­powered machine guns. Taiwan occupies Itu Aba Island, on which it has constructed dozens of buildings for military use, protected by hundreds of troops and twenty coastal guns. Vietnam occupies twenty-­one islands on which it has built runways, piers, barracks, storage tanks, and gun emplacements. Malaysia and the Philippines, as stated, have five and nine sites respectively, occupied by naval detachments.11 Anyone who speculates that with globalization, territorial boundaries and fights for territory have lost their meaning should behold the South China Sea.

China’s position vis-­à-­vis the South China Sea is akin to America’s position vis-­à-­vis the Caribbean Sea in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United States recognized the presence and claims of European powers in the Caribbean, but sought to dominate the region, nevertheless. It was the Spanish-­American War of 1898, fought primarily over Cuba, as well as the digging of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914, that signaled the arrival of the United States as a world power. This development, not coincidentally, occurred following the closure of the American frontier, with the last major battle of the Indian Wars fought in 1890. Moreover, it was domination of the Greater Caribbean Basin that gave the United States effective control of the Western Hemisphere, which, in turn, allowed it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. Perhaps likewise with China in the twenty-­first century.

China, by way of its 1,500 short-­range ballistic missiles focused on Taiwan and its 270 commercial flights a week to Taiwan, will be able to do an end run around Taiwanese sovereignty without needing to subdue it through a naval invasion. As with the closing of the American frontier, China’s effective capture of Taiwan in the years to come will allow Chinese naval planners the ability to finally concentrate their energies on the wider South China Sea, an antechamber to the Indian Ocean in which China also desires a naval presence, in order to protect its Middle Eastern energy supplies. Were China to ever replace the U.S. Navy as the dominant power in the South China Sea—­or even reach parity with it—­this would open up geostrategic possibilities for China comparable to what America achieved upon its dominance of the Caribbean.

To be sure, the South China Sea is no Caribbean. In fact, it is more important. The Caribbean was far from the main sea lines of communication, while the South China Sea is at the heart of them.

Because the South China Sea is where the sea lines of communication between the Horn of Africa and the Sea of Japan join together, the state that dominates the South China Sea will be a long way toward dominating the navigable rimland of the Eastern Hemisphere. Of course, the opposite is more likely to be the case: no one state will dominate the South China Sea. Another reason why the South China Sea is so important is that it is on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world.

The U.S. Navy presently dominates the South China Sea. But that situation will change. The size of the U.S. Navy has come down from almost six hundred warships in the Reagan era, to the mid–­three hundreds during the Clinton era, to under three hundred now. It might go lower still by the 2020s, because of the retirement of current classes of submarines and surface warships, cost overruns, and future budget cuts, the result in turn of massive fiscal deficits. Meanwhile, the Chinese navy, the world’s second most powerful naval service, is growing rather dramatically. Rather than purchase warships across the board, China is developing niche capacities in subsurface warfare and ballistic missile technology (the DF-­21 missile) designed to hit moving targets at sea, such as a U.S. aircraft carrier. If China expands its submarine fleet to 78 by 2020 as planned, it will be on par with the U.S. Navy’s undersea fleet in quantity.12 While the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet is completely nuclear, it requires that feature to sail halfway around the world, in order to get to East Asia in the first place, even as China’s diesel-­electric submarines are supremely quiet and can hide better, therefore, in the congested littorals of East Asia. At some point, China is likely to, in effect, be able to deny the U.S. Navy unimpeded access to parts of the South China Sea.

Thus, as China’s navy gets stronger—­its economy permitting—­and China’s claim on the South China Sea—­as demonstrated by its maps—­contradict the claims of other littoral states, these other states will be forced to further develop their own naval capacities and to balance against China by relying increasingly on the U.S. Navy: a navy whose strength has probably peaked in relative terms, even as it must divert considerable resources to the Middle East. Worldwide multipolarity is already a feature of diplomacy and economics, but the South China Sea is poised to show us what multipolarity in a military sense actually looks like. Just as German soil constituted the military front line of the Cold War, the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military front line of the coming decades.

There is nothing romantic about this new front line. Whereas World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the Cold War a moral struggle against communism, the post–­Cold War a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Levant, as well as a moral struggle against terrorism and in support of democracy, the South China Sea shows us a twenty-­first-­century world void of moral struggles, with all of their attendant fascination for humanists and intellectuals. Beyond the communist tyranny of North Korea, a Cold War relic, the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business. Even China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury.

The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-­calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China’s leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. These are not the decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world who have been overthrown. Rather than fascism or militarism, China, along with every state in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence, the rise even, of old-­fashioned nationalism: an idea, no doubt, but not one that since the mid-­nineteenth century has been attractive to liberal humanists.

Nationalism in Europe during the 1800s denoted a moral community against imperial rule. Now the moral community for which intellectuals and journalists aspire is universal, encompassing all of humankind, so that nationalism, whose humanity is limited to a specific group, is viewed as reactionary almost. (This is partly why the media over the decades has been attracted to international organizations, be it the United Nations, the European Union, or NATO—­because they offer a path beyond national sovereignty.) Yet, despite pan-­national groupings like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), it is traditional nationalism that mainly drives politics in Asia, and will continue to do so. And that nationalism is leading to the modernization of militaries—­navies and air forces especially—­in order to defend sovereignty, with which to make claims for disputed maritime resources.

There are no philosophical questions to ponder in this new and somewhat sterile landscape of the twenty-­first century. It is all about power; the balance of power mainly. While the language at Asian summits will be soft, the deployment of warships in disputed seas will be hard. Military engagements on land involve occupation of civilian populations, which lead often to human rights violations, so that foreign policy becomes a branch of Holocaust studies. But the application of sea power is a purely military matter. Unless shelling on shore is involved, the dead are usually all in naval uniform, and thus there are no victims per se. In the early twenty-­first century, the South China Sea will continue to be at the heart of geopolitics, reminiscent of Central Europe in the twentieth century. But unlike Central Europe it will not constitute an intellectual or journalistic passion.

The separation of geopolitics from human rights issues, which were conjoined in the twentieth century in Europe, plus the degree of abstraction that surrounds the naval domain in any case, will help make the South China Sea the realm of policy and defense analysts, rather than of the intellectuals and the media elite. Realism, which is consciously amoral, focused as it is on interests rather than on values in a debased world, will therefore triumph. This is how the South China Sea will come to symbolize a humanist dilemma.

The great exception to this line of argument is the environment. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 took place in the vicinity of the South China Sea and claimed more victims than the Iraq War. Even absent global warming, the normal variations of climate and seismic activity in environmentally fragile areas, combined with continued absolute rises in coastal populations, will virtually guarantee occasional humanitarian disasters around the South China Sea in coming decades. Navies will need to respond. By responding in the grandiose manner that it did to the Indian Ocean tsunami, the U.S. military, led by an aircraft carrier strike group, applied soft power in a way that augmented its hard power. Namely, humanitarian assistance to Indonesia led to resumed ties with the Indonesian military that the United States had not enjoyed for years. The news coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami indicates how the South China Sea may appear to the world through the media’s distorting mirror. The experts will follow naval movements in these waters regularly, while the media will lavish prime-­time attention on the region only in cases of natural catastrophe. But even in the midst of such catastrophes, in comparison to twentieth-century Europe, the human rights angle will be muted because while there will be victims, there will be no villains, except of course for Mother Nature. And without villains, moral choice that distinguishes between good and evil cannot operate, meaning that in a philosophical sense there will be comparatively little drama.

The moral drama that does occur will take the form of austere power politics, of the sort that leaves many intellectuals and journalists numb. Imagine the Melian Dialogue from the Fifth Book of Thucydides, but without the killing of the Melian menfolk, and without the enslavement of the children and womenfolk that followed—­and that provided for the tragedy in the first place. In this revised Melian Dialogue for the twenty-­first century: the Athenians, Greece’s preeminent sea power, tell the Melians that while Athens is strong, Melos is weak, and therefore must submit. As Thucydides writes, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”13 Thus, the Melians give in without violence. This will be China’s undeclared strategy, and the weaker countries of Southeast Asia may well bandwagon with the United States to avoid the Melians’ fate: in other words, power politics, almost mathematical in its abstractions, without war.

The Cold War excepted, the South China Sea presages a very different form of conflict than the ones to which we have become accustomed from World War I to Iraq and Syria. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, we have been traumatized by massive and conventional land engagements on one hand, and dirty, irregular small wars on the other. Because both kinds produced colossal civilian casualties, war, as I’ve said, has been the subject of humanists as well as of generals. But in the future we just might see a purer form of conflict (at least in East Asia), limited to the naval realm, with little for the intellectual journals of opinion to chew over: like the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, but without the prospect of land warfare. This is a positive scenario. For conflict cannot be eliminated from the human condition. A theme in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is that conflict, properly controlled, is more likely to lead to human progress than rigid stability. A sea crowded with warships does not contradict an era of great human progress for Asia.

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Top reviews from the United States

K. C. Albak
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
S.E. Asian Insights Beyond What We Were Never Taught in School!
Reviewed in the United States on May 12, 2018
I just read this book for the second time, and Kaplan''s subtle insights into national backgrounds of countries and statelets around the South China Sea sink in even more. "We" project many erroneous motivations onto nations because we know little about their... See more
I just read this book for the second time, and Kaplan''s subtle insights into national backgrounds of countries and statelets around the South China Sea sink in even more.
"We" project many erroneous motivations onto nations because we know little about their national backgrounds. Kaplan takes a chapter-by-chapter analysis of the political history of each country to give sometimes completely new outlooks on the past of each of these nations, from past colonizations by Europeans, historical dominance by China, or the influences of overseas Chinese in their trade patterns, going back a thousand years.
He also contrasts cultural differences that have mattered today and in the past. He delves into the laid-back culture of the Malays and their almost contemptuous attitude to Time and getting things done, is contrasted with the driven attitudes of overseas Chinese and the Vietnamese, and the resultant dominance through history.
He illustrates how the influence of Confucian values of family-over-individual made for clan success and wealth-building in those nations where these values had influence, and how non-Confucian values in the Philippines made the parallel clans hotbeds of corruption.

Advocates of western liberalism will be taken aback by his analysis of how Malaysian and Singaporean autocrats created peace, order, and financial success not by spreading democracy, but by limiting it, and walks the reader step by step through the trial-and-error insights gained by Mahathir and "Harry" Lee as they guided the modern states of Malaysia and Singapore to wide citizen acceptance despite a lack of democracy.

Kaplan contrasts the present economic and military differences that resulted from past interactions by the region with China. He explains why China today avoids confrontation with Vietnam, laughs at the Philippines, and cultivates/manipulates the connections to Chinese heritage of the overseas Chinese in each of these countries. He goes into endless detail of the impact of the "cow tongue" demarcation line off its southern coast, why China made ''peace'' with the Vietnamese over its sea borders with them while going on challenging claims of other nations, and how and why China is spending the next hundred years patiently expanding its control in the Taiwan Straits and out to the "near islands", and building naval power to expand into and beyond the Ryukyus, Korean Sea, Yellow Sea...and on to the Pacific.

The only critique I have is it was written in 2014, as economic doubts about continued Chinese growth were arising in the news, prompting Kaplan to suggest several times that Chinese military expansion may not be financially sustainable. This has since proved not to be true.
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David Lindsay
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
America may need to rethink its Asian strategy
Reviewed in the United States on July 21, 2015
Robert Kaplan describes the South China Sea as being “as central to Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe.” He discusses the impact of a powerful China on the countries bordering the Sea. China believes that almost the entire Sea belongs to them, and they have plenty of... See more
Robert Kaplan describes the South China Sea as being “as central to Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe.” He discusses the impact of a powerful China on the countries bordering the Sea. China believes that almost the entire Sea belongs to them, and they have plenty of old maps to support their claim. China is on the rise and it is starting to throw its weight around. China has indicated that it would like the US military to pull-out of Asia and it seems to have aspirations to become a regional hegemon. China''s behavior has triggered a regional arms race and Kaplan is predicting that South East Asia will become less stable. Kaplan does not believe that a war between China and the United States is inevitable, it depends on how the US responds. He wants the US to accept a smaller role in the region and suggests that America may have to rethink its Asian strategy.

Kaplan does a good job explaining the issues. Firstly, the South China Sea is an important waterway. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through the region. Secondly, it contains a lot of oil and China is desperate for new energy. Chinese oil reserves account for only 1.1% of the world total, while it consumes over 10% of world oil production. China believes the South China Sea contains more oil than any area of the globe except Saudi Arabia. Some Chinese observers have called the South China Sea “the second Persian Gulf.” Thirdly, China is seeking an Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine, and believes in “Asia for the Asians.” Fourthly, the future of the region depends on whether the US is willing to pull-back and allow China to expand its power and influence.

Kaplan believes the South China Sea is to China what the Greater Caribbean was to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He argues that the United States became a great power, geopolitically, by dominating the Caribbean. He claims that the Europeans departed the Caribbean allowing the US to dominate it. He suggests that the US should consider reciprocating in the South China Sea. “American officials…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 indigenous power.”

Kaplan has this back-to-front. The US did not chase Britain out of the Caribbean. Britain had several sugar colonies in the region and possessed the world’s largest navy. It maintained several naval bases and in 1895 it could deploy forty-four battleships to America’s two. Its ships went where they wanted, like the US today. America still thought of Britain as its major geopolitical rival at Bretton Woods in 1944. Like Britain in the Caribbean, the US has no intention of pulling out of the South China Sea.

The US has maintained a military edge over its rivals since WW2 because of its superior technology. Most "experts" in the media advise us that for the foreseeable future, China’s military is no match for America’s. The US Navy still relies on 11 very expensive, but increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers to police the oceans. However, China has been developing capabilities specifically designed to counter America’s power in the Pacific. The Economist reports that for over two decades China has been investing in submarines, air defense systems, ballistic missiles, and advanced cyber capabilities. The aim is to make it too dangerous for America’s carriers to operate close to China. The Economist suggests that the US may find it difficult to win a war in the South China Sea. After all, the US fought China during the Korean War and the result was a draw.

The US has been the hegemonic power in Asia since WW2, but it now has a rival. America assumes the right to send its ships close to the Chinese mainland, and China views this as intimidation. Kaplan believes that the US is in relative decline, while China’s military power will continue to grow. He concludes that America will either have to change the way it operates in the South China Sea, or risk war.

The US does not have many good options. Many of the states in the region depend on the United States for diplomatic and military support. It will be difficult to run away, as Ian Bremmer has advocated. Kaplan is hopeful that China will become a benign regional hegemon and won’t pose a threat to its neighbors. Kaplan is optimistic about China, he claims that China “however truculent, is no Imperial Japan.”
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Joschka
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Superb Writing that Gives a Traveler''s Sense of the Places -- offset by some Possible Failures to dig Deeply Enough
Reviewed in the United States on June 26, 2014
Robert D. Kaplan is both a great writer and a brilliant political analyst. His descriptions of places would position him among the very best of travel writers if he did nothing more than that. But he does so much more. If you want to know what''s happening in Asia... See more
Robert D. Kaplan is both a great writer and a brilliant political analyst. His descriptions of places would position him among the very best of travel writers if he did nothing more than that. But he does so much more.

If you want to know what''s happening in Asia and where things are likely to go, read this book. I''m glad I did.

That said, I do have some serious concerns. I''ve been living in Taiwan for the past five years and I was startled at what I read about the history of Chaing Kai Check and Mao Tze Dong.

Kaplan claims that Chaing was buying his weapons from Germany to fight the Japanese but would Hitler sabotage his Japanese Allie by selling weapons the Chaing? Very unlikely.

Kaplan spends a lot of words telling us that Chaing was a brilliant general, was much better for the Chinese than Mao, and that our view has been distorted by the American General Stilwel. But Kaplan completely leaves out several critical parts of the story:

1. Chaing (who was actually a terrible general) got his weapons and military training through an alliance with the Chinese Communists who got their weapons and training from Stalin.

2. Chaing formed an alliance with the Chinese Communists and marched together with them to attack the European occupiers of Shanghai. At the last moment, Chaing stopped his forces and refused to continue with the joint attack. The Communists were defeated and nearly all of the leadership was either captured or killed. Only Mao escaped.

As a consequence, Chaing is clearly to be blamed for the eventual rise of Mao to become Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. How can it be realistic to excuse Chaing when Mao was essentially his creation?

With serious errors like this in an area I know a little about, I wonder what other serious errors are lurking in the areas I don''t know much about?
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clean
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
What you need to understand about the South China Sea
Reviewed in the United States 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... See more
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!
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Philox12
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Good and Bad
Reviewed in the United States on April 23, 2015
I wanted to like this, but was increasingly disappointed as I read. Kaplan is best when he is detailing and analyzing the relationships among the nations of the South China Sea, their strategies vis-a-vis China and the U.S., on the ground facts, etc., Even if you don''t... See more
I wanted to like this, but was increasingly disappointed as I read. Kaplan is best when he is detailing and analyzing the relationships among the nations of the South China Sea, their strategies vis-a-vis China and the U.S., on the ground facts, etc., Even if you don''t agree with him, he raises important issues thoughtfully. These areas probably make the book worth reading once. He is much less impressive when analyzing (and praising) the single party rule/dictatorships of Malaysia, Signapore and Taiwan''s recent past and this takes up more of the book as it proceeds. In these areas, he is simplistic and his analysis is largely based on the 1980s ideology of Reagan/Thatcher with a little 1990s neo-conservatism thrown in.
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D. B. Hopkins
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Thought Provoking
Reviewed in the United States on May 1, 2014
Kaplan''s latest exploration of geopolitics is excellent. I miss his more fascinating stories of his travels in cultural references, but they are not as relevant to the theme in this one. It''s all about all those little islands in the South China Sea, and what they might... See more
Kaplan''s latest exploration of geopolitics is excellent. I miss his more fascinating stories of his travels in cultural references, but they are not as relevant to the theme in this one. It''s all about all those little islands in the South China Sea, and what they might mean as China takes control of its "Caribbean." This volatile region is a tipping point in the balance of power between China and the US, and Kaplan gives us an excellent perspective of how each of the key countries surrounding this "Chinese lake" view their stake and strategies in the game as the importance of China''s naval power develops. The South China Sea is synonymous with skullduggery and intrigue, and nothing much has changed since Terry and the Pirates. What many don''t realize is how important this region is in the global scheme of things, and the fact that a humungous proportion of the worlds trade and energy supplies pass through the Malacca Straits - nearly 40% of the world''s trade; 90% of Japan''s total imports; and, 80% of China''s crude oil supplies. It figures that the stakes here are enormous as the Straits and the South China Sea are the key links between the Indian Ocean and the Far East. The small island groups are significant in their own right as potential resources in oil and gas. Vietnam emerges as a power beyond its apparent size , which shouldn''t surprise Americans. After all, they won the war with the US, and managed to beat back China''s incursions. The apparent poverty of the Philippines; the masterful leadership of Mahathir in Malaysia; the dilemma of Taiwan; all play a part in this drama. Thought provoking, and a wake up call for those who don''t realize how important this region is to the global balance of power.
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P. Hwee
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Deeply Enriching Lessons About China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan
Reviewed in the United States on June 24, 2014
I bought this book reluctantly since I don''t like to read more than one book by an author and I''ve read Robert Kaplan''s earlier book entitled "Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power," which is very insightful and instructive. Mr. Kaplan tops... See more
I bought this book reluctantly since I don''t like to read more than one book by an author and I''ve read Robert Kaplan''s earlier book entitled "Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power," which is very insightful and instructive. Mr. Kaplan tops himself.

This little compact book is actually excellent, just like each iteration of Apple''s iPhone and Samsung''s Galaxy S smartphone. I''m glad I bought and read this informative book.

I''ve traveled to some of the countries (and have close friends who were born in the countries) that are featured in this book. Mr. Kaplan delivered yet again, succinctly capturing the essence and historical and contemporary nuances of the countries he featured in this book. He solidly portrayals each of the nations that are located within the sphere of the South China Sea.

The biggest takeaway from this book is that the geopolitical struggles that have been occurring in the South China Sea have significant ramifications for every nation on planet Earth and Earth itself (e.g., climate and sea level changes). These struggles will likely continue long into the distance future and the constant multitude of wakes generated in the South China Sea can and will have existential relevance not only to the "physical speck of a city-state" known as Singapore but also to large and small nations in every other continent in the world, especially as the world now (the Summer of 2014) watches Iraq disintegrate further into the abyss.

While the world now watches helplessly as the US "liberated" Iraq descends further into a hellish nightmare and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and similar savage militant groups continue to run amok, the prism through which one should formulate and implement strategic relationships among and with nations that are within the sphere of the South China Sea should include the following optics Mr. Kaplan proffers:

"[T]he ruler who moves society to a more advanced stage of development is not only good, but perhaps the most necessary of historical actors -- to the extent that history is determined by free-willed individuals as well as by larger geographical and economic forces. And the good autocrat, I submit, is not a contradiction in terms; rather, he stands at the center of the political questions that we face and will continue to face. The South China Sea region proves it."

Mr. Kaplan explains:

"The good dictator, by fostering economic growth, among other things, makes society more complex, leading to more civil society groupings, and to political divisions based on economic interest that are by definition more benign than divisions of tribe and sectarian or ethnic group. A good dictator can be defined as one who makes his own removal less fraught with risk, by preparing his people for representative government. All this is exactly what Lee [Kuan Yew of Singapore] and Mahathir [bin Mohamad of Malaysia] accomplished."

While the Middle East is on the precipice of imploding and Vladimir Putin''s Russia continues to make incursions into Ukraine, current and aspiring world leaders along with business executives should also keep their keen eyes on changes that are shaping up in the South China Sea, which "is a nervous world, crowded with warships and oil tankers, one of incessant war games without necessarily leading to actual combat." And this book helps sharpen those keen eyes.

Those keener eyes counsel against a Paul Revere reaction to China''s "rising military powers," alerting readers to critically analyze China''s supposed desire to establish hegemony over the South China Sea and to question China''s mantra of "while China only defends, the United States conquers." The hypothetical war games presented in the latter part of this book are fanciful but perhaps instructive for military planners and politicians.

At the end of the day, as Mr. Kaplan poignantly asserts, "The South China Sea will grow in importance less because of the hydrocarbon resources it holds than because of the increased amounts of imported oil and natural gas passing through its sea lanes." Mr. Kaplan ends the book as follows: "But as much as I heard bout submarines throughout my journeys, the image of the slum encampment on stilts in the water lingers, too."

The grinding poverty that pervades resource-rich nations in Africa is also prevalent among nations that surround the South China Sea. Sea piracy will remain a potently tangible treat as long as pervasive poverty exists. Therefore, the navies of both China and the United States, whose economies are becoming ever more intertwined, must work together to defend the sea lanes against piracy in the South China Sea, the defense of which would partly require genuine joint efforts to alleviate poverty throughout the region. This common interest between China and the United States is likely to predominate over maritime disputes involving "features" in three archipelagos: the Pratas, the Paracels and the Spratlys.
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A. Menon
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Good introduction to regional politics in the South China Sea
Reviewed in the United States on June 22, 2014
In recent years there has seemingly been a rise in regional conflict. Easter Europe is an obvious example in which Russia is becoming more aggressive with its bordering countries and agreements and Asia has had more and more incidents with respect to domestic unrest as... See more
In recent years there has seemingly been a rise in regional conflict. Easter Europe is an obvious example in which Russia is becoming more aggressive with its bordering countries and agreements and Asia has had more and more incidents with respect to domestic unrest as well as regional conflict, though at this point it remains diplomatic rather than military. The world is becoming far more multipolar and understanding those dynamics and diverging regional interests in a world with scare resources is becoming more important. Much literature with respect to China and global politics focuses on China with respect to the large global powers and the multipolar world we seem to be transitioning to. Robert Kaplan focuses on the growing regional politics that will likely flare up with a much higher frequency and the importance of understanding the histories of these countries with respect to one another.

The author focuses on the South China Sea. The South China Sea has always been a critical lifeline of trade from both a global and regional perspective. It is also speculated that there are enormous energy reserves scattered throughout the sea and within the spheres of influence of the various nation states that inhabit the South China Sea. There are competing claims by Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam of which none will likely be resolved in the near future. With a growing China and growing resource demand and energy requirements the South China Sea is a hotbed for regional conflict with grounded in competing economic interests. Asia''s Cauldron discusses the histories of each of the countries (excluding Brunei) and articulates the strengths and weaknesses of the various countries. The author discusses the rulers and their perspectives and how they have shaped their countries - with more centralized "benevolent" autocrats in Malaysia and Singapore vs more nepotistic despots in Philippines and Indonesia and more militaristic socialist regimes like Vietnam.

Asia''s Cauldron is a combination of history and modern day geopolitics. The reader is given a perspective on why the South China Sea will continue to be an area of dispute and on the growing naval expenditures of all the countries with interests there. One understands how much the US remains a check on the current rise of material disputes but at the same time its longer term lack of relative strength with the regions growing military budgets. The historical accounts of the region are reasonable but the weaker part of the book; a history of Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines are better documented elsewhere, but the overviews are reasonable. Overall this book gives valuable insight into the politics of the South China Sea and how it will continue hold vital interests for all the regional powers and heightened importance for the growing regional superpower- China.
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Late-Night Reader
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Fantastic Book. Great Timing. Broad Implications
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 29, 2014
Robert Kaplan could not have timed this book any better with China laying aggressive claims to oil exploration rights off the Vietnam coast. He gives a thorough analysis of each of the principal players at threat from China''s long game in the South China Sea. Most...See more
Robert Kaplan could not have timed this book any better with China laying aggressive claims to oil exploration rights off the Vietnam coast. He gives a thorough analysis of each of the principal players at threat from China''s long game in the South China Sea. Most impressive is how he uses a consistent analytical framework which is devoid of obvious emotion and bias. In particular he compares China''s increasing dominance in the South China Sea to how the US seized control of the Caribbean from European powers in the 19th Century. This gives an air of inevitability to the shift of power now taking place and how US will be marginalized sooner or later. Whist he sees the risk of military confict flaring up, his thesis does not depend on it. Sheer military might in the region will likely be enough for China - when a big tatooed guy muscles down the street, he does not need violence, his visible presence can be enought to intimidate others. Kaplan also gives engaging profiles and insights into key leaders in Asia - Lee Kwan Yew, Mahathir and Deng - and the cast of fools which have run the Philippines. I found this the perfect lens through which to view developments in Asia. But more than that I found his approach to be very useful in viewing geopolitical developments elsewhere - such as Ukraine and the Middle East.
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AK
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
An easy to read summary of why the South China Sea matters and will continue to do so in the decades to come
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 8, 2015
The book is an eclectic mix of the geo-strategic, economic, cultural and military viewpoints covering the area of the South China Sea and its importance in the decades to come. The importance of the area is undisputed and the author does a good job of presenting this...See more
The book is an eclectic mix of the geo-strategic, economic, cultural and military viewpoints covering the area of the South China Sea and its importance in the decades to come. The importance of the area is undisputed and the author does a good job of presenting this clearly, while clearly writing for a lay audience - i.e. not really going into the level of detail level required by an expert. After an introduction, which covers the relevant maps and the trade route / resource reasons that make the South China Sea so important globally, is followed by individual chapters, covering the development trajectories of the countries bordering the South China Sea. This means China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, with comments on the role of the US, Japan and Australia factored in, too. The author certainly went to great lengths travel-wise, in order to write the book. Country visits and rafts of first hand interviews have been organized and carried out, all of which informed the work. This makes the book an engaging and varied read. Therefore it is not an in-depth analysis and uses fewer analytical sources than a book more geared towards an expert reader. It also means that the author is more at the mercy of the statements of individual interview partners for his opinion, somewhat but not always ameliorated by the number of interviews. Put differently this means the author is not an expert in any single area. Therefore you will get much better insight into the naval / military component of the conflict by reading something like Till''s Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (Cass Series: Naval Policy and History) and a truly superb and much more accurate account of the economic development of the region and its consequences in Studwell''s How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World''s Most Dynamic Region. At the same time, books such as those require much more involvement from the reader, so if you are looking for a quick overview, the book may well be a good bet. As such the book tackles an important topic in a way to attract the largest possible audience, something for which the author definitely needs to be commended. At the same time it is just frustrating that some more analytical sweat was not invested - those last missing 5% in effort cost the book an easy 5 stars in my opinion, as they mean many grating details, which were not sweated out (such as the complete omission of the period and importance of the Japanese occupation of Vietnam in WW2, a very one-sided understanding of the economic success of Malaysia, an almost pre-formed conclusion that the Chinese development is about to end prematurely, etc.). Still, a worthy buy nevertheless.
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Andrew Lord
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
The Military Front Line of the Coming Decades
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 5, 2016
With a fine eye for both detail and the big picture, Robert Kaplan tells us the story of the South China Sea and lays out the challenge posed by the present tension there. It is on China''s doorstep but functions as ''the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, the...See more
With a fine eye for both detail and the big picture, Robert Kaplan tells us the story of the South China Sea and lays out the challenge posed by the present tension there. It is on China''s doorstep but functions as ''the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce.'' Asia will define the 21st Century as Europe did the 20th. Europe is about who controls the land. Asia is about the sea, and America has controlled the Asia-Pacific since its 1945 defeat of Japan. But, as Kaplan, explains, "the age of simple American dominance, as it existed through all of the Cold War decades and immediately beyond, will likely have to pass. A more anxious, complicated world awaits us." The complication is the rise of China with its regional economic and political muscle with an America that appears to have no straight-forward policy of how to deal with it. Kaplan''s conclusion:- "Just as German soil constituted the military front line of the Cold War, the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military front line of the coming decades." Libraries are filled with books on China and Asia. Few are as accessible and vividly clear as Asia''s Cauldron.
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JC
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Timely, informative and thought-provoking.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 30, 2017
Fascinating survey of the South China sea issue that does a great job of drawing out its strategic and symbolic importance. The historical analogy between the US and the Caribbean and China and the South China sea really works and is thought-provoking. The book begins with...See more
Fascinating survey of the South China sea issue that does a great job of drawing out its strategic and symbolic importance. The historical analogy between the US and the Caribbean and China and the South China sea really works and is thought-provoking. The book begins with an overall survey but its real strength are the individual country chapters which follow, combining as they do narrative and anecdotal colour with insight and knowledge.
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Ivan Sjøberg
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Worth your time..
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 18, 2014
This book gives a very good and objective reasoning, about the developing tension in the south china sea. The chapters about the autocratic nation builders of the region, is one of the best I have read. Considering the author is an american, the book gives an outlook of the...See more
This book gives a very good and objective reasoning, about the developing tension in the south china sea. The chapters about the autocratic nation builders of the region, is one of the best I have read. Considering the author is an american, the book gives an outlook of the countries interests in the region that is logical for the specific countries, and is more from a human perspective than an american one.. The downside is at times mr.Kaplan tries to describe scenery with a failed attemt at writing like Oscar Wilde. But when the book is at its best, it shows incredible insight, and a man who is worthy of your attention. One chapter (Singapore and malaysia ) I would have no problem recomending, as part of a high school curriculum. In other words a very good book.. Please overlook my bad english.
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2021 discount Asia's Cauldron: The South new arrival high quality China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific outlet online sale

2021 discount Asia's Cauldron: The South new arrival high quality China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific outlet online sale

2021 discount Asia's Cauldron: The South new arrival high quality China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific outlet online sale

2021 discount Asia's Cauldron: The South new arrival high quality China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific outlet online sale

2021 discount Asia's Cauldron: The South new arrival high quality China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific outlet online sale

2021 discount Asia's Cauldron: The South new arrival high quality China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific outlet online sale