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"Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific," by Robert D. Kaplan

Book Review Editor
Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 11:30 PM

Published by Random House (2014)

Reviewed by Ali Wyne

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Published by Random House (2014)

Reviewed by Ali Wyne

The relationship between the United States and China will arguably shape international order more than any other phenomenon. The US Department of Justice’s recent indictment of five members of China’s military for economic espionage has focused attention on the two countries’ disagreements over the norms of cyberspace. One could argue, though, that competition between the US and China is most acute in the physical space of the Asia-Pacific region. While the US has been the preeminent power there for the past seven decades, it is China’s backyard and, dating back centuries, the center of its worldview. Zoom in a bit more, and the South China Sea emerges as a decisive register for three sets of interactions: those between the US and China, China and its neighbors, and the US and China’s neighbors.

In Asia’s Cauldron (his third book in four years), Robert Kaplan convincingly portrays this 1.35-million-square-mile body of water as a central crucible in which this century’s geopolitics will transpire. He emphasizes three points. First, Chinese primacy in the South China Sea “would go a long way toward making China more than merely the first among equals of Eastern Hemispheric powers.” Second, the principal risk for China’s smaller neighbors is not invasion, but “Finlandization.” The growing gravitational pull of China’s economy doubles as a carrot—your economy will continue to flourish if you keep yourself open to our exports and investments—and a stick—you will endanger an increasingly important component of your economy if you take actions that undermine our national interests. Behind that dual-use instrument is an increasingly capable People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Given its aspiration of achieving a peaceful rise, China would prefer that its smaller neighbors accommodate themselves to its perspectives on the territorial disputes that are roiling the region (essentially, Kaplan explains, “give in without violence”). Third, the US “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.”

While such judgments are commonly held, Kaplan lends them texture and urgency by including provocative observations by government officials. A few years ago, for example, an “official of a South China Sea littoral state” told him that “China simply waits until it becomes stronger. Economically, all these countries will come to be dominated by China.” Hinting at the South China Sea’s importance to China, PLA Navy Commander Wu Shengli asked an audience in Singapore: “How would you feel if I cut off your arms and legs?” And according to one US official, if “China can break off Vietnam they’ve won the South China Sea.”

These sorts of quotes pepper Kaplan’s account, lending narrative flair to a subject that, oddly enough, he depicts as almost tedious. The South China Sea, he remarks, is a “somewhat sterile landscape,” the realm of “austere power politics” that will leave “little for the intellectual journals of opinion to chew over.”

The author of an influential article in the May/June 2009 issue of Foreign Policy, “The Revenge of Geography” (which he subsequently developed into a book of the same title), Kaplan excels at probing the geographic insecurities of China’s smaller neighbors. China’s location makes its growing military muscle and economic heft more concerning than they otherwise would be. While China “is a geographical fact,” observes Kaplan, “the United States at least in Asia is merely a geopolitical concept. Translation: China is close by and therefore threatening.” Take, for example, the Vietnamese, who

know that geography dictates the terms of their relationship with China: they may win the battle, but then they are always off to Beijing to pay tribute ...Vietnamese officials are impressed with the geographic asymmetry of their situation: as they say, a distant water can’t put out a nearby fire. (emphasis Kaplan’s)

Or consider his assessment of Filipino vulnerability:

The sea is the country’s economic lifeline for everything from fishing to energy exploration … the potential loss of access to new hydrocarbon reserves in areas of the South China Sea…as well as the loss of access to existing fisheries … constitutes a national security nightmare for Manila.

Rather than lumping China’s smaller neighbors into a monolithic bloc, however, Kaplan usefully differentiates between their dilemmas and perspectives. “No country,” he says, “is as threatened by China’s rise as much as Vietnam”; it is a country, after all, which derives a crucial part of its national identity from centuries of resistance to Chinese assertiveness. But its economy “simply couldn’t function without China.” Malaysia, meanwhile, “is too subsumed by its own contradictions to focus on an outside threat … unlike hyper-nationalist Vietnam, [it] wants nothing of the conflict with China.”

The list continues. Singapore is troubled by China’s “vast latent power,” but its fears are not as visceral as those of its neighbors; the country’s elite, Kaplan notes, is “more comfortable with serious adversaries than…with unserious friends.” It is the Philippines, however, that appear most hapless in his account. They are “besieged by China; besieged by the various, low-level internal rebellions in the country; and in a larger, albeit vaguer sense, by the country’s own cultural intractability.”

Some of the most trenchant passages in Asia’s Cauldron try to go beyond the focus on the South China Sea’s economic centrality. True, over “half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage” and “a third of all maritime traffic” pass through there, and it “has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.” (Some scholars, including Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi, cite more cautious estimates.) Remarkably, though, the principal sources of tension in the South China Sea involve bits of land and rock formations that, in and of themselves, are almost entirely devoid of economic value. Kaplan reasons that “with little history behind them and basically no civilians living on them,” they are “free to become the ultimate patriotic symbols, more potent because of their emptiness and henceforth their inherent abstraction: in effect, they [have] become logos of nationhood in a global media age.”

This discussion of abstraction suggests that China’s desire to achieve primacy in the South China Sea is rooted in more than its conception of national interests. Take into account the leadership’s need to heed the nationalism of an increasingly confident Chinese public, and a fuller picture emerges. But the most powerful motivation may well be a belief—unanimous among China’s elites and widespread among its citizens—that a South China Sea under China’s sway is inherent to a just international system. From China’s historical vantage point, explains Kaplan, “Beijing’s dominance of the South China Sea…is altogether natural.” A natural claim is even more powerful than a self-evident one.

Insights such as these would stand out more had Kaplan trimmed certain parts of the book. While prologues generally preview an author’s thesis, for example, he ends his by noting two possibilities that he references only sparingly in the remainder of the text: precipitous Chinese decline that would place China “on an equal…footing with India and other powers and civilization”; and the emergence of military and economic multipolarity, which might compel any number of China’s neighbors to pit “a host of powers against each other.” The book’s fifth chapter also feels like a distraction; while his discussion of Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad is interesting, it does little to illuminate the (largely China-centered) tensions that are simmering in the South China Sea.

Kaplan also does not go far enough to rank the litmus tests that he proposes for gauging the future of the South China Sea—which, he suggests, is closely tied to the future of US preeminence in and beyond the Asia-Pacific. He calls Taiwan “the bellwether for the political and military situation throughout the Western Pacific.” Elsewhere, however, he ventures that whether the Philippines become Finlandized “may say more about America’s trajectory as a great power than the fate of Iraq.” His assessment of Vietnam is nearly identical. Whether that country becomes Finlandized, he concludes, will say “as much about the American capacity to project power in the Pacific in the twenty-first century as Vietnam’s fate did in the twentieth.”

Perhaps the most important point of contention, however, is Kaplan’s assessment of international law. In the sixth chapter of Asia’s Cauldron he relates a briefing that he received from the Secretary-General of the Philippines’s Commission on Maritime Affairs, Henry P. Bensurto, Jr. Lamenting that China’s willingness to make concessions on its maritime claims will likely diminish as its military grows stronger, Bensurto concluded with an “appeal to international law—the ultimate demonstration of weakness.” Perhaps, but international law’s role in the South China Sea’s evolving geopolitics is likely to grow.

This February, for the first time, the US explicitly rejected the legitimacy of China’s self-declared maritime border, sometimes referred to as the “nine-dash line” or “nine-dashed line.” While the line itself predates the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, China only officially resurrected it five years ago, in a May 2009 communiqué to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that any “use of the ‘nine-dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law.” In March, moreover, the Philippines submitted a document—containing “ten volumes with maps,” totaling “nearly 4,000 pages”—to a five-member tribunal operating under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This move sets an important precedent in at least two ways. First, the Philippines persisted despite intense Chinese pressure to withdraw their case as well as the realization that proceeding would invite even greater pressure, possibly entailing punitive economic measures. Its action may encourage other smaller countries—Vietnam, in particular—to take a similar tack. Second, explains the Financial Times, the filing “marks the first time that China’s ‘nine-dash line’ will be subjected to intense international scrutiny by some of the world’s foremost international law experts.” Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, offers two possible explanations why the Chinese government has never explained its legal basis:

China may be reluctant to clarify the precise meaning of the map because the map provides a maximalist negotiating position should the various parties ever agree to seek a diplomatic resolution of their competing claims. Second, the map has effectively painted the government into a corner: It would be difficult to reconcile the map with UNCLOS, yet discarding it would trigger a strong nationalist backlash.

The Filipino declaration may well increase pressure on China to offer a justification—justification that even some prominent Chinese observes find difficult to adduce. In a much-discussed April 2012 report, the International Crisis Group noted that some Chinese scholars “recognize that the line is difficult to justify under UNCLOS’s definition of territorial waters,” and further understand that “the nine-dashed line cannot serve as a formal delimitation of a maritime boundary.”

China’s erstwhile unwillingness to moderate its stance on the line presents many challenges to the United States. Given that its emerging modus operandi for handling maritime disputes appears to be applying incremental pressure, not engaging in outright aggression, how can the US respond both seriously and proportionately? How can it demonstrate its commitment to President Obama’s signature foreign-policy initiative—the rebalance—without compounding the free-riding tendencies of China’s neighbors, big and small? How can the US encourage greater unity among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) while restraining any pretensions they may have to forming an overtly anti-China bloc?

But the challenges that China faces in its “Caribbean” are formidable as well. In fairness, its increasing loneliness in the Asia-Pacific is not entirely its fault: as I argued in a review of Geoff Dyer’s new book this past February, it cannot change its history, its size, or its location. Even granting, however, that China has a limited ability to advance its national interests without alarming its neighbors, China’s behavior in recent years has sometimes seemed designed to undermine its own “peaceful rise.”

Begin with its words. Then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi did considerable damage to China’s regional standing with his July 2010 statement that it “is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.” Yet the current foreign minister, Wang Yi, doubled down on that sentiment in March, warning that China “will never accept unreasonable demands from smaller countries.” And Xinhua recently advised the Philippines and Vietnam that “ignorance of China’s resolve to defend its sovereign land will induce consequences too severe for certain countries to bear.”

China’s actions often reinforce these words. Whether by blocking exports of bananas from the Philippines in May 2012; declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone this past November; or, earlier this month, attempting to place an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands (the week before Malaysia was to hold the ASEAN Summit), China has steadily managed to alienate many its neighbors. Remarkably, it has even unnerved two neighbors that usually play little to no role in discussions of the South China Sea—Malaysia and Indonesia.

According to a report in Reuters in late February, Malaysia reacted nervously to a series of naval exercises that China conducted around the James Shoal in the previous year (one in January and another last March), since the Shoal lies within Malaysia’s “exclusive economic zone” as defined by UNCLOS. To that end, Reuters explained, it has stepped up “cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam,” which are the “two Southeast Asian nations most outspoken over China’s moves in the region.”

Indonesia, for its part, is not even a claimant in the South China Sea Disputes. Why, then, did China decide to include parts of the Natuna Islands within the nine-dash line? The commander in chief of Indonesia’s armed forces stated that he was “dismayed” by the move. He added that the Indonesian military would “strengthen its forces on Natuna” and “prepare fighter planes to meet any eventuality stemming from heightened tensions on one of the world’s key waterways.”

China has long hoped for a smooth ascent in its backyard, and it may well come to exercise disproportionate influence over the South China Sea and in the Asia-Pacific. But its preeminence is likely to prove lonely, unstable, and contested.

(Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (MIT Press 2013).)

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