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Book Review – “Asia’s Cauldron” by Robert D. Kaplan

By Atique Ur Rehman

“Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific” is yet another insightful book by Robert D. Kaplan. The book has a powerful notion. In South China Sea, China and Vietnam are at naval confrontation with each other. Kaplan opens up with the historical influence of India upon Vietnam, which he depicts as a kind of ‘cultural shatter zone’ between the two great Asian powers. He highlights the economic significance of South China Sea, which ultimately has turned the global sea route into a significant importance. South China Sea links the trade of the Pacific and Indian oceans. The book is mix of geopolitics, history and travelogue. The writer states that this region will be the heart of global affairs in the 21st Century, not only because of the rapid growth of many of these states, but also because of the demographics.

The author forecasts the rising tensions in the South China sea with growing Chinese Naval power challenging the US dominance in the area.

The writer predicts that “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.” Kaplan presents the economic and strategic significance of the area. More than the 50 percent of the global oil passes through the South China shipping lanes, moreover within the South China sea more than 700 billion-barrel reserves of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of gas are important reserves for the industrial development. The South China Sea fish stocks may account for as much as 10 percent of the entire world catch. He links it with the rapidly increasing energy requirement of China, which makes the Pacific more significant and prone to tension.

China’s rapidly growing military spending, which is second only to the US, has triggered a regional arms race. Many of the East and South Asian nations are monitoring China’s military spending with concern. Kaplan views China’s recent naval assertiveness as nationalistic posturing and does not see any major conflict breaking out over the uninhibited islands and open ocean. Instead, he describes, the rise of China’s economic and military power might prompt its neighbours to align the Chinese policy preferences without a military conflict.

China has adopted a cautious strategy of naval expansionism, chipping away at the territorial status quo. The Chinese actions are carefully calibrated to avoid confrontations with the United States. To prove its regional hegemony, China will continue to push forward in the disputed waters as long as there remains virtually no cost to doing so. The US Navy is likely to continue the collaborative efforts with the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and other nations in the region, but will avoid any buildup which may trigger an arms race in South China Sea.

The United States holds a significant role in the region. Nations of the region can only balance China’s rise with the support of the United States. This presents that the nations throughout the region face difficulty of choice. While these nations may not have a clear strategic vision as to how to respond to the changing balance of power, they do agree on one thing: they all want more submarines and ships, even if they don’t really have the resources to afford or maintain them (as maybe the case, Kaplan suggests, with Vietnam’s recent order of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia). It is for this reason that a nation such as Singapore is now one of the top ten arms importers in the world.

The US will require to respond more proactively to the Chinese expansion against the US allies in Southeast Asia. The US may have to deploy naval ships to support the allied fleets. It is difficult however to predict as to how China will respond to a more active US policy. It might affect the US-China cooperative efforts in the short term, but the US will have to do it to demonstrate its commitment to the region, as well as its allies. While this will not prevent at all the escalation in tensions, which Kaplan sees as an inevitable consequence of China’s military rise, it might forestall the acceleration of a regional arms race caused by uncertainty and insecurity.

The book “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific” is about future, about predictions. The writer raises a question in the book if there will be a war between China and US over the South China sea? Yet, prediction of future is an inaccurate science.

Published by Random House in New York, “Asia’s Cauldron” is a short book of 225 pages by Robert D. Kaplan .