Genre: Southeast Asia History
Author: Robert Kaplan
Title: Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (Buy the Book)
Robert Kaplan has pinpointed the South China Sea as the most important geopolitical space in the
This is the last frontier, one of the last places on earth where map lines are being redrawn daily and those lines are only as strong as the cold hard steel of the military might that backs them up. This book dissects why the South China Sea is so critically important, assesses the competitors involved, and explores some timeless power dynamics that ultimately drive the actions of the participants.
The South China Sea is a relatively empty body of water with almost no inhabitants that fills the space between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. The lack of life in the South China Sea masks the true character of the region; a hotbed teeming with activity that is one of the most highly contested places in the world.
All the countries mentioned have differing and overlapping claims on the South China Sea. The de facto situation in the South China Sea
At the crux of the issue in the South China Sea are the competing claims from Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam within the South China Sea. China claims within the South China Sea what is termed the cow’s tongue.
The cow’s tongue, or the
The United States naval presence shifts the balance of power away from China and prevents
The strategic importance of this area quickly becomes apparent because of its large oil and gas reserves, and its usage as a conduit to ship energy supplies and goods. The South China Sea contains 130billion barrels of oil by some estimates, a staggeringly large claim. The South China Sea is not just important for its abundance of energy resources, but also because of the energy that passes through it.
Crude oil from the Middle East travels through the South China Sea to supply roughly 60% of Japan’s and 80% of China’s crude oil imports. In terms of transportation of goods, roughly 50% of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through this region.
The strategic importance is perhaps better illustrated in terms of pure numbers, the South China Sea is the bottleneck that connects China’s 1.3 billion people to the Indian subcontinents 1.5 billion people. For all the reasons mentioned above the South China Sea represents a critically important area.
China is likely to continue to increase influence in the South China Sea in much the same way that America asserted influence in the Caribbean during the 19th century. As historian John Mearsheimer states “An increasingly powerful China is likely to try to push the United States out of Asia, much the way the United States pushed the European powers out of the Western Hemisphere.
Why should we expect China to act any differently than the United States did?” The South China Sea represents a geographically and economically core interest for China, and is too far away to represent a similarly core interest for the United States. For this reason the United States must be prepared to accept a lesser role in the region.
“The Strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” – Thucydides
The quote above succinctly summarizes the interactions that occur within the realm of international geopolitics. With no true absolute authority, there are no rules. Each entity simply strives to maximize power by acting in rational self-interest. With this in mind, China’s role in this conflict can be logically understood, and exposes classic power behaviors.
China seeks to maximize its share of global power and will do so by biding its time to slowly turn United States naval strengths into weaknesses. At the same time, China will divide and conquer each nation individually by exerting influence to negotiate favorable bilateral agreements. Perhaps the most enduring observation of all is the warning against linear projections, recognizing the most enduring trend of all is change.
Robert Kaplan is a renowned author and geopolitical strategist who works for Stratfor, a global geopolitical intelligence firm. In his book, Asia’s Cauldron, Kaplan analyzes the South China Sea through engaging insights and anecdotal dialogue that help explore the deep complexities of this region.
This brief examines why the South China Sea has become such a hub for conflict, who the competitors are, and how the situation is likely to play out. Throughout the book the motivations of the entities involved reveal big picture themes that are applicable in almost any spectrum of life.
The picture above does an excellent job illustrating the complexity and overlapping claims made by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam within the South China Sea.
The dynamic in the South China Sea can be understood by zooming in on one of the most contested island groups, the Spratly Islands (shown in the picture above). The Spratlys are a tiny group of islands located far away from all of the countries involved and are entirely devoid of life.
The Spratlys are claimed in full by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam; while also claimed in part by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. In other words, it is a popular place. Regardless of the claims made, every country mentioned has gone to great lengths to militarize as many islands as possible in order to justify and legitimize their respective claims. This tiny island group is indicative of the larger problem in the South China Sea.
At the crux of the issue in the South China Sea are the competing claims from the countries mentioned above.
Most countries around the world respect and live within the U.N.’s Law of the Sea convention. The convention essentially stipulates that countries can claim up to 200 nautical miles off their coastlines. China, while having adopted this convention, does not truly adhere to it.
Interestingly the United States has not ratified the Law of the
Most of the smaller countries refute China’s claim and have responded by making large claims of their own. Taiwan is the
Issues would still arise amongst the smaller countries if they all operated under the U.N.’s Law of the Sea convention.
China’s current claims trump that potential problem by creating a bigger problem for
MORE MONEY MORE PROBLEMS
The strategic importance of this area quickly becomes apparent because of its large oil and gas reserves, transportation of oil and gas, and transportation of goods. To begin, the South China Sea contains 7 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and nearly 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Some liberal Chinese estimates have speculated that the sea could contain a total reserve of around 130 billion barrels.
This number, while highly questioned, would make it the second largest reserve in the world. The South China Sea is not just important for its abundance of energy resources, but also because of the energy that passes through it.
Crude oil from the Middle East travels through the South China Sea to supply roughly 66% of South Korea’s, 60% of Japan’s, 60% of Taiwan’s, and 80% of China’s crude oil imports. It is crucial to remember that China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies, respectively. Those two economies require massive amounts of crude oil to function. As if this were not enough, of all the goods that travel continent to continent, 90% do so by maritime travel.
A great deal of that passes through this region. Roughly 50% of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage and 33% of all maritime traffic passes through the South China Sea. These statistics have the potential to grow even more when considering the South China Sea is the bottleneck that connects China’s billion people to the Indian subcontinents 1.5 billion people.
These population figures do not include hundreds of millions of people in Southeast Asia that also rely on the South China Sea for energy and goods.
Energy feedstock and protected trade passageways are crucially important to any economy. For this reason, securing resources essential for economic growth is a fundamental goal of all countries worldwide. In simple terms, battles in the South China Sea will be fought to support trade and economics as countries increasingly devote more focus to those issues.
OUT OF SIGHT AND OUT OF MIND
The transition of conflicts from ideological struggles of democracy to those of economics and trade exposes an important element. Conflicts in the South China Sea will not involve moral issues, nor pit good against evil. The struggles here are purely economic and nationalistic. Battles will not result in the loss of civilian life and will happen far away from cities.
The media will not report on the stories here as there will not be an underdog to champion or a human rights crisis to rally around. Stories here will lack the shock and awe needed to garner attention from the general public.
The most likely scenario is that these few specks of land and the ships that patrol them will be overshadowed by stories about the zombie apocalypse or celebrity weddings. Conflicts at sea will be sterile and clean compared to actions taken on land by groups like the Islamic State that cause heavy civilian casualties.
The lack of media coverage will be exacerbated in the United States by the feeling of imperialist fatigue that is currently
wide spread among the population.
After long drawn out quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, the public is not interested in becoming entangled in another far-flung conflict across the globe. This attitude has led the United States to adopt a softer foreign policy, falling back at a time when strength is needed the most.
If the United States continues to demonstrate weaker foreign policy coupled with reduced defense spending, the balance of power in the South China Sea could seriously be in jeopardy.
A GLOBAL FORCE FOR GOOD
No thought is given to the question of if the United States should act as a global keeper of the peace. Regardless of one’s foreign policy views, the United States has done a great deal of good in this role, but is beginning to change directions as this position becomes unpopular domestically.
It is easy to see that the American public has grown tired of providing a global security blanket. The public is increasingly favoring isolationist policy. Many wish to reduce what they perceived to be American meddling in foreign affairs. This attitude and policy will be detrimental to the countries surrounding the South China Sea.
It is hard to measure the impact the United States has had on global peace and prosperity, as there is no way to see what might have been.
While tragedies still occur, many have been avoided due to United States pressure and influence. Examples include the restraint of Pakistan and India from entering into destructive nuclear war; limiting North Korea to threats instead of action; and the very existence of small embattled nations like Israel, Singapore, and Taiwan.
Taiwan has been a thorn in China’s side since its founding.
It is estimated that there are 270 plus flights per day between Taiwan and
China may do business with
“The fact that Russia is still constrained in its attempt to seriously undermine the sovereignty of states in Eastern Europe”, and “the fact that the Middle East has so far at least avoided an interstate Holocaust of sorts.”
Prophetically, these two events are clearly stated as benefits of a strong United States global presence.
The United States’ increasing unwillingness to stand behind allies and act as the global police officer has rapidly resulted in ugly outcomes in both situations. Russia correctly guessed that the United States would not risk an outright engagement over a country as distant as Ukraine.
Likewise, the establishment of the Islamic State in the Middle East is allowing entire ethnic groups to be targeted and killed. The main theme behind both of these events is that it is not America’s ideals and values that keep the world safe, but rather the usage of military force.
This has lead many embattled countries to realize that the United States can no longer be relied upon for military support. This will undoubtedly lead to a large increase in defense spending as countries opt to pursue militarization now that the United States is no longer a reliable safeguard to ensure continued national sovereignty.
China will continue to pursue control over the South China Sea in much the same way that America pursued control over the Caribbean Sea in the 19th and 20th century. America did not need to actively take over any of the Caribbean countries to become the de facto leader of the region.
Similarly, China also does not need to officially take over any countries. China’s economic heft and large trade relationships with countries in Southeast Asia will make it difficult for those countries to outwardly disobey China’s desires.
This will push politics into even darker corners, as countries outwardly try to appease China, while they rapidly militarize and subtly appeal for a larger United States naval presence. China will seek to control the South China Sea by developing its navy and in doing so allow itself to expand into the Indian and Pacific oceans.
China is not breaking new ground in its bid to expand into the South China Sea.
As historian John Mearsheimer states, “An increasingly powerful China is likely to try to push the United States out of Asia, much the way the United States pushed the European powers out of the Western Hemisphere. Why should we expect China to act any differently than the United States did?”
China is actually just following in the footsteps of the United States.
The South China Sea represents a geographically and economically core interest for
This theory is backed up by the situation that has played out in Ukraine. As mentioned earlier, the United States simply does not have enough of an interest in Ukraine to justify the use of force to retake parts of the country. By not claiming direct ownership in the conflict, Russia has also made it difficult for the United States to enact an appropriate retaliatory response.
China has recognized this habit and adopted an approach that also makes an equivalent response difficult. While the United States uses its navy to carry out foreign policy, China effectively utilizes its coast guard to influence events. Chinese coast guard boats are often used to harass fishing and other non-military vessels from other countries.
The United States can not carry out a proportionate response, and thus little is done. This highlights another key factor. In an effort to be equitable and fair, the United States seeks to only apply equal responses when provoked.
The United States rarely chooses to escalate its response. Constantly overreacting would cause the United States to gain the reputation of an unjust bully. While that description is not desirable, it would make countries think twice before acting.
DON’T FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE
China recognizes that it needs a naval strength greater than or equal to the naval power of United States in order to increase control of the South China Sea. It would be a monumental task for China to build aircraft carriers and submarines as technologically advanced as those utilized by the United States.
China has cleverly elected to not fight fire with fire. Instead, China has focused on taking the United States’ biggest strengths and turning them into weaknesses. China has made significant progress in undermining the massive tactical advantages enjoyed by the United States’ aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.
The United States boasts world-class aircraft carriers that are game changers in any naval conflict.
China has been aggressively developing missile technology explicitly designed to hit moving targets at sea. This sort of technology changes the United States’ strategy for deploying aircraft carriers. No longer can aircraft carriers swagger through open waters unimpeded.
While aircraft carriers are far from vulnerable, the United States must now, at
This allows them to stay submerged for the time necessary to conduct missions in places like the South China Sea that are
This reduction of sound allows them to hide better and decrease the chance of detection. Given China’s geographic proximity to the South China Sea, it has no need for nuclear submarines. In fact, the quieter diesel/electric submarines are advantageous in the crowded and congested South China Sea.
The ability to travel long distances is an extremely useful operational capability for a United States submarine to possess, as missions could occur anywhere around the globe. When missions are focused
China only needs to neutralize the United States naval strengths in the South China Sea.
Once on equal footing, China will be able to pursue regional hegemony that will slowly “Finlandized” the countries in the region. Finlandization means for a country to remain nominally independent, but have policy dominated by a stronger foreign state.
The term Finlandized arose from the situation that developed in Finland during the Cold War. The Soviet Union agreed to let Finland remain unoccupied and somewhat independent as long as it abided by rules set forth by the Soviet Union. In laymen terms, China will be a schoolyard bully without supervision.
If there is no oversight of the bully, the bully will do as he pleases. Everyone will dislike the situation, but be forced to accept it. The balance of naval power in the South China Sea will determine if China will be able to Finlandize and bully the surrounding countries.
China’s expanding influence does not signal the end of all happiness in the region.
While the Chinese government is communist and authoritarian, there is no reason to assume that it will wreak havoc in the region or act heavy-handed abroad. China’s increasing influence could allow for greater regional stability and encourage economic growth. Deepening ties with one of the world’s
Securing the South China Sea would allow China to expand its focus to other bodies of water, namely the Indian and Pacific Ocean. China’s navy would most likely move into the Indian Ocean to continue to fortify energy transportation routes. Developing further control over the vast energy resources in the Middle East is an essential strategic objective for China. China’s movement towards the Indian Ocean will only occur after it has settled questions closer to home in the South China Sea.
NOT SO FAST
If China achieves naval equivalence it would be very close to a victory in the South China Sea. However, that victory is also dependent upon the actions of the other countries involved in the fight. In order to project what will happen, it is important to understand what has happened. Exploring more about Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Taiwan will help in determining what may happen in the future.
Vietnam is the most legitimate competitor within the South China Sea. Vietnam has a booming economy and a unique culture that harbors strong influences from both China and India. Vietnam’s history and culture is strongly influenced by both Chinese and Indian empires.
In fact, one of the strongest empires in Vietnam’s history was the Champa
Vietnam’s history is littered with conflicts and fights against China.
In fact, Vietnamese national heroes have often achieved fame through successfully engaging in conflicts against China. It is important to understand that “the overwhelming emphasis of official Vietnamese history is on resistance, almost always against China” according to historian Robert Templar.
This has caused many Vietnamese to develop a little brother mentality in regards to China. One of the best examples is that Vietnam refers to the South China Sea as the East Sea, disputing that the sea belongs to China. Vietnam recognizes the massive economic benefits that are being reaped from a strong connection to China, but does not want to be pushed around.
While Vietnam cannot openly oppose China, it has a deep-seated desire to remain completely free. Vietnam will fight tooth and nail to avoid becoming Finlandized. However, Vietnam’s political culture is one of extreme realism. Vietnam can clearly see that China has a superior military. Vietnam understands that it would not be able to win a military engagement against China.
Vietnam can resist
If it becomes apparent that the United States is not going to provide a check against China, the Vietnamese will begrudgingly yield to China. Nonetheless, Vietnam is not wholly dependent on the United States. Vietnam recently bought six
Malaysia is not worried about China, and it has hedged the risk of Chinese aggression by encouraging deep cooperation with the United States’ navy.
American navy vessels frequent ports in Malaysia. This fosters deeper ties that cause Malaysia not to feel threatened by China. There is no fierce resistance or even anxiety. This loosely banded nation does not experience nationalism, and, for that reason, Malaysia will have no problem cutting deals with China or anyone else.
Malaysia does not have to worry about
The ethnic Malays are predominately Muslim and have been in power for the past few decades.
The man credited with modernizing Malaysia is Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad. Mahathir is an interesting character, both a visionary and a bigot. Few could have managed to glue together such disparate and conflicting groups of people in a manner as successful as Mahathir.
Conversely, he is also well known for his blatantly anti-Semitic comments and for inflaming those same feelings in his constituency. All in all, he is human – capable of great feats and great failures. Great leaders can and do harbor deplorable faults. This is a great example that while no one is perfect, imperfect people can still create massive amounts of good for other people in the world.
Singapore is a tiny city-state that is the envy of politicians around the world for its cleanliness and efficiency.
The small state has been able to establish a strong foothold in only a tiny space. Singapore is serious about maintaining independence. For example, it has as many airplanes as Australia, a country with more than seven times the number of people. Additionally, Singapore currently operates six submarines, more than Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam (excluding Vietnam’s recently purchased submarines mentioned above).
Furthermore, Singapore has developed deep ties with the United States and regularly hosts United States naval vessels in its harbors. Singapore even custom built a harbor specifically designed to host United States naval ships. The serious nature of Singapore’s approach to its defense and its deep ties with the United States should assure its continued independence.
Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore, is perhaps one of the most underrated leaders of the 20th century.
There are few tasks more monumental than those undertaken by Yew in establishing Singapore as an ideal nation. Yew did so through
While harsh punishment is not the only way to modify behavior, it does work. One theme that quickly becomes apparent from Singapore’s rise to global prominence is an idea exposed by John Stuart Mill when he writes “progress includes order,” but “Order does not include progress.” Yew established strict laws to ensure order would be established.
The first order of business for Singapore was developing a city-state with a national identity and the ability to protect itself. Yew wanted to create tough people capable of dealing with the constant threat of attack. He wrote that “
The Philippines is a relatively weak state, with an outdated navy.
The country is still trying to get over decades of
There is no better sentence to describe the weak condition of the Philippines than the following: “Facing off against China’s nonmilitary ships was the pride of the Philippine navy, a 1960’s hand-me-down from the U.S. Coast Guard”.
The United States will publicly condemn China when its coast guard pushes around Philippine vessels, but it will have a hard time justifying any other response. This makes the Philippine particularly ill-suited to defy China, and particularly dependent on the United States.
However, as a treaty ally and former colony of the United States, the Philippines will be harder for China to push around. That does not mean it will be done any less often, though. Pushing around the Philippines is a way for China to poke the United States in a relatively harmless manner.
That allows the Chinese media to stir up nationalist passions and reinforce the idea that China is not afraid of the United States. China will most likely be able to slowly encroach upon Philippine claims in the South China Sea without triggering a response from the United States. Slow gradual actions by China will ensure that the United States dislike for escalation will prohibit it from acting until it is too late.
Taiwan, like Singapore, is a small embattled country that requires the United States support to remain free.
Taiwan’s continued independence is questionable. The founding of Taiwan presents an unforgettable problem to those from mainland China. Taiwan’s founding as the “real” China is a memory that still haunts China. Taiwan is, in a sense, the one that got away.
As China slowly becomes whole again, regaining Macau, Hong Kong, and various other chunks of land taken by foreign powers, Taiwan is a stark reminder of past humiliations. For China, the last piece of the puzzle is Taiwan. Outright war is unlikely due to a combination of international pressure and the high costs that would occur.
China would also have to execute a difficult beach landing, and then oversee a costly occupation of Taiwan. Both would be costly in terms of lives and dollars. Nonetheless, it will be difficult for Taiwan to remain independent and outside the influence of China. In fact, mainland China is Taiwan’s largest and most important trading partner.
While the relationship is without a doubt important to both parties, China is clearly in the driver’s seat.
It is not hard to imagine China beginning to mandate certain actions from Taiwan in order to keep the flow of goods open. Any prolonged period of economic stagnation would also likely reduce Taiwanese opposition to integration with China. At the end of the day, it is always about money. Taiwan is also heavily restricted from purchasing arms to protect itself.
Any country known to be selling arms to Taiwan can expect to be greeted with anger from China. There are basically no countries willing to risk the wrath of China just to make a quick buck. This puts Taiwan in a defensibly vulnerable and economically dependent position.
Taiwan does have the United States to rely on, but there may soon come a time when even the United States would balk at jeopardizing bilateral relations with China for the sole purpose of protecting Taiwan. The choice to give up some values in order for increased stability is a timeless tradeoff that will need to be made.
Not so long ago, this sort of action was referred to as appeasement.
Europeans chose to try to overlook aggressive actions, in order to preserve some semblance of stability and the status quo. This, of course, ignores that by allowing new aggressive action, the status quo is fundamentally changed.
The rise of China’s military might causes the United States to no longer be able to make decisions solely upon whether something is wrong or right. Instead, it must now also put more thought into potential outcomes because victory and success during military operations
Taiwan’s independence from China may be the best method
The countries above can stand united or fall divided.
The countries above could benefit immensely from deepening their relationships. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is an avenue that provides each of these countries the opportunity to form a group to oppose a dominant China.
Already some countries have begun to sign bilateral agreements pledging support to one another. China can easily push around and bend one country to its will. A chain of countries locked together is much harder to break. This sort of cooperation would significantly alter the balance of power in the South China Sea. It remains to be seen if enough cooperation can be mustered up.
The South China Sea is a dynamic environment that has the full attention of all the countries that border it. It is an arena that is fraught with competition. The economic factors that reside in and move through the South China Sea mean that it will stay a contentious issue for the foreseeable future. The globalized world has become focused on securely locating and transporting energy, goods, and anything else that drives globalized economies.
China is going to have a bigger say at the table from now on. Its geographic proximity to the South China Sea means that it will hold an inherent advantage over a faraway power like the United States. The United States must keep a decisive military advantage in the South China Sea.
If China neutralizes the United States’
After securing the South China Sea, China will look to branch out and establish influence within the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The world is changing, and the United States reign as the world’s sole superpower will eventually end. The future is likely to prominently feature expanded influence from China.
All of these theories and potential outcomes are only possible because of a willingness to ask the questions that make others uncomfortable. China’s rapidly growing influence scares other nations.
The ability to ask tough questions in the pursuit of truth can result in equally uncomfortable answers and solutions. However, there is nothing to fear from truth. The truth is, China is acting rationally and similarly to other large countries throughout history.
Despite an intricate web of connections and relationships, it all comes down to simple intrinsic behaviors summed up below:
“The Strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” – Thucydides
Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.
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