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.
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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of over a dozen books on foreign affairs and travel, including Balkan Ghosts, Eastward to Tartary, and Warrior Politics.
Michael Prichard has recorded well over five hundred audiobooks and was named one of SmartMoney magazine's Top Ten Golden Voices. His numerous awards and accolades include an Audie Award and several AudioFile Earphones Awards.
Kaplan / ASIA'S CAULDRON
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 ...
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