Rusty "Cauldron"

Rusty "Cauldron"

A new book on the South China Sea struggle misses the mark.


Robert Kaplan, author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, would be a most interesting dinner companion. Obviously well travelled and extremely well read, he has a remarkable capacity for linking disparate thoughts and impressions in insightful ways. No surprise there. One is not named one of the world’s Top 100 Global Thinkers for nothing.

Unfortunately, however, Kaplan’s intellectual chops do not make for sound analysis of the environment in which American interests are being pursued in the South China Sea. In fact, having read some of his earlier work, Kaplan does not seem to have brought his full talents to bear on the topic. As a result, the collection of observations in “Asia’s Cauldron” could very well lead him and the strategic community who most admire him astray on policy prescriptions.


Kaplan is a “realist.” His book is less about the six-party dispute over the South China Sea than it is about the balance of power in the region, and firsthand overviews of the countries that comprise it. For theoretical context, he relies heavily on the work of political scientist John Mearsheimer and cites others from Thucydides and Machiavelli to Kenneth Waltz. Predictably, he also relies on supposed self-evident lessons of geography. (He determines, of course, where geography, particularly the constraints of distance, is superseded in order to fit his theses, e.g. concept of the “IndoPacific.”)

Geography is critical to understanding political dynamics in East Asia, as is the balance of military forces, population sizes and diversity, and GDP growth, among other factors. But a realism too tightly drawn on these material factors is as divorced from today’s realities in Asia as it is from the century and place of its greatest success—nineteenth-century Europe. In a sense, Kaplan recognizes this in what he calls the “humanist dilemma:” A situation in which “morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability.” “It is the balance of power itself, even more than the democratic values of the West,” he maintains, “that is often the best preserver of freedom.” This is a conclusion that will be prohibitively difficult to sell, not only in Washington, D.C., but also in many capitals in the Western Pacific. This is also a reality.

Ideals matter to the United States. The content and consistency of America’s commitment to morality in its foreign policy can be, and is, hotly debated. What is beyond question is that the U.S. has often been motivated by humanitarian causes, from military responses to natural disasters to comprehensive sanctions against tyrannical governments. Moral values condition and constrain American policy options. This is a well-known feature of the policy environment found by our friends, allies, and potential adversaries in Asia.

Kaplan’s eclectic approach to disputes in the South China Sea also leads to what are in my opinion, serious mischaracterizations and misjudgments about the current state of affairs. I will look at just three.

First, his depiction of the Philippines is uncharitable to say the least. It is, he says, “less a country than a ramshackle empire ruled from Luzon.” Whatever motivates such a sweeping conclusion, it cannot be an objective examination of the facts. It certainly could not have been gleaned from contact with the professionals in the Philippines public service he cites. They are among the best any government service can produce.

Does the Philippines have more than its fair share of opportunistic, irresponsible politicians? Probably. But the country that created President Macros also created President Aquino—not to mention his near-sainted parents. There are many other people of principle in the service of their nation in both government and civil society.

Think Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario and former President Fidel Ramos. Hope for the U.S.-Philippines is much deeper than the window Kaplan says was opened by a combination of President Aquino’s election and Filipino vulnerability. The Washington-Manila relationship has been recovering for many years now—even prior to the 2002 start of our counterterror cooperation in Mindanao.

Such are the pitfalls of analysis that begins with reference to a painting by Henri Matisse and seeks to roll up one hundred years of history in a twenty-page chapter entitled “America’s Colonial Burden.” In a more serious examination of the problems presented American policy makers in the South China Sea, Kaplan would have told the full story of Scarborough Shoal in 2012. The Philippines had long ago re-learned the value of the US-Philippines alliance—if they had indeed forgotten it—at Mischief Reef in 1995.

What they learned in 2012 was that they cannot bank on America’s clout with the PRC. All observers—including Obama administration officials—tell the same story. The U.S. leaned on the Philippines to remove their ships from Scarborough on the promise that it would demand the same of the Chinese. The Philippines did as asked; the Chinese—whether or not they were ever actually asked by the U.S.—did not.

Second, there are several details concerning China’s interest that require clarification. At one point, Kaplan asserts that Chinese officials never identified South China Sea as a “core interest.” This directly contradicts Secretary of State Clinton, who told an Australian journalist in November 2010 that State Councilor Dai Bingguo, widely regarded at the time as the most powerful player in Chinese foreign policy outside the Politburo Standing Committee, told her precisely that it was. In another section, Kaplan cites a Taiwanese professor’s interpretation of the famous nine-dash map at the center of the whole controversy as saying it represents “ownership of the islands and their offshore waters...rather than ownership of the whole South China Sea itself.” This may be the professor’s perspective, and hopefully it reflects the Taiwanese government’s position. In fact, one of the most positive things that could happen in this dispute is that Taiwan would officially and publicly so clarify its position. It is not at all clear, however, that this is the PRC’s position, despite the private assurances sometimes given by their own scholars. Only public, official positions count on this one.

Third, Kaplan’s various references to ASEAN seem to rest on an understanding of the organization that is basically a reflection of the Obama administration’s demonstrated interest in it. By this I mean, knowing the administration’s focus on ASEAN, he builds his best realist case for it. The biggest problem with this is that President Obama is no realist. He has made clear on more than one occasion his disdain for the concept of great-power competition. But given that there are others in the administration who likely do see the world in geopolitical terms, it is worth looking at what ASEAN’s potential role in such competition is not. ASEAN is decidedly not “banding together in the face of a rising great power like China,” as Kaplan holds. After all, it was only a few short years ago that all most of Washington knew about ASEAN was that the member states “did not want to choose” between the U.S. and China.

This brings me to what is an extremely valuable insight from “Asia’s Cauldron”—Kaplan’s conception of a “South China Sea Region.” Because of the divisions within ASEAN, it is a much more useful geopolitical reference point than “Southeast Asia” or “ASEAN.” Even within the “South China Region,” there are significant differences in interests and perspective. Kaplan touches on those. But narrowing the discussion to maritime Southeast Asia dispenses with the danger of analyzing ASEAN’s role in the South China Sea through its own myths of community.

Probably more central to Kaplan’s purpose, this final, valuable insight also eases the comparison between America in the Caribbean and China in the South China Sea. This and other topics raised by the book, including the “humanist dilemma,” as Kaplan calls it, are worth exploring in some seriousness and depth without foregone conclusions drawn from geography. Underdeveloped and in writing, I am afraid they are discussions which will provide the Chinese with justification and our allies and friends with chagrin. They are the sorts of topics best explored in ranging, real-time conversation where the thoughts and associations of a great intellect are free to roam.

Walter Lohman is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.