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Book review: Asia's Cauldron, the South China Sea and the End to a Stable Pacific

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 6:34pm

Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End to a Stable Pacific
by Robert Kaplan
Random House
4 stars

Mark O'Neill

In Asia's Cauldron, Robert Kaplan asks if there will be a war between China and the United States over the South China Sea.

The American journalist and political commentator, who has written 15 books on foreign affairs and travel which have been translated into many languages, is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm.

His thesis is that the contest over the sea lanes of the South China Sea, through which more than half of the world's merchant tonnage and the bulk of East Asia's supplies pass, will emerge as the primary line of conflict in the coming decades.

Beijing has set down as its territory an area of two million square kilometres of the sea, a claim contested by Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. According to Kaplan, Beijing's rising military power will face a coalition led by the US, which has entered a period of relative decline.

China is expanding its military, including the navy, to a level never seen before. It is building up its submarine base at Hainan, home to the latest diesel-electric submarines and nuclear ballistic missile subs.

"War [in the South China Sea] remains a possibility against which all regional powers must always be on guard … China now demands a regional order that it, as the dominant indigenous power, will do the most to maintain. Because Chinese naval power is rising, the situation is in serious flux," Kaplan writes.

"Because China is geographically fundamental to Asia, its military and economic power must be hedged against to preserve the independence of smaller states in Asia that are US allies … China will not tolerate a coalition of smaller powers allied with the US against it."

The area is of great economic as well as strategic importance: 60,000 vessels a year pass through the Straits of Malacca, including tankers holding 13 billion barrels of petroleum. The South China Sea's fish stocks may account for as much as 10 per cent of global landed catch, not to speak of oil and gas reserves.

Now the balance is strongly in favour of the US - half of its dozen aircraft carrier strike groups are nominally assigned to the Pacific and it has overwhelming military superiority in guided missile cruisers and destroyers. But China is catching up: by the latter half of the next decade, it will have more warships than the US navy in the western Pacific.

Kaplan argues that the best outcome is for the Asian states themselves to help balance against rising Chinese military power, rather than relying overwhelmingly on the US; the most obvious mechanism is a strengthened Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"The age of simple American dominance, as it existed through all of the cold war decades and immediately beyond, will likely have to pass," he writes. "A more anxious, complicated world awaits us."

The book is well researched in terms of history and the present. Kaplan has visited the places of which he writes and held long interviews with people there. He describes in detail the Asian countries involved.

He has, for example, excellent meetings with members of the Vietnam defence establishment who set out their country's position on the South China Sea. They tell him their dispute with China is not a territorial dispute, but concerns a crossroads of global maritime commerce, vital to the energy needs of South Korea and Japan.

The book's weakness is that it is about the future - and predicting the future is an inexact science.