The Magazine

Sea of Troubles

The Pacific as naval battleground.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Accordingly, he sees China’s approach to the South China Sea as analogous to the Monroe Doctrine. Just as the Caribbean is close to the United States and far from the great European powers of the 18th and 19th centuries, so the South China Sea is close to China and far from the United States. The difference is that, unlike the newly independent Caribbean and Latin American states that saw the United States as a bulwark against the reimposition of European colonialism, China’s neighbors look to the United States as a counterbalance against Beijing’s military growth. 

But Kaplan also invokes a realist argument on behalf of the continuing role of the United States in East Asia. The United States, he contends, provides the security for the global commons upon which globalization depends—and which, for the most part, keeps the peace, aside from the small wars that erupt from time to time. Although Kaplan does not use the term, hegemonic stability is what he is describing, a theory that maintains that free and open international trade—globalization—requires more than simply a global invisible hand. Instead, globalized trade requires a hegemonic power to be willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security. 

During the 19th century, Great Britain functioned as the hegemon; since World War II, the United States has fulfilled this role. Although the role of hegemon creates burdens, those burdens have been in the interest of the United States, since we disproportionately benefit from the resulting order. According to the theory of hegemonic stability, a decline in relative American power could create a more disorderly, less peaceful world; or, as Kaplan puts it, “substantially reduce .  .  . American military presence and the world—and the South China Sea in particular—looks like a very difference place.” 

Kaplan is here echoing Samuel Huntington, who wrote: 

A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.

Kaplan also makes a realist argument on behalf of strong autocratic leaders. In words sure to offend the sensibilities of those who see democracy as a panacea for state development, Kaplan defends the approach of such “good autocrats” as Malaysia’s Mahathir bin Mohamed, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, and even Taiwan’s long-vilified Chiang Kai-shek, who all developed “hybrid” regimes that helped create modern (and liberal) economies in their respective countries. 

Kaplan’s approach here reprises that of his earlier books: It is part treatise on geopolitics, part travel narrative. Indeed, he writes in the tradition of the great travel writers, most notably Gertrude Bell, who helped create the narrative that led to the creation of modern Iraq. 

Asia’s Cauldron is also a tour d’horizon of the South China Sea and its environs, describing how the character of the region arises from the intersection of Indian/Khmer and Sinic cultures. As he has often done when looking at other regions, Kaplan rejects the “area studies” categories that have shaped U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy in the postwar era. Rather than placing Southeast Asia in the East Asia and Pacific realm (as both the Pentagon and State Department do), we should, Kaplan argues, consider the region as “part of an organic continuum that is more properly labeled the Indo-Pacific, whose maritime heart is the South China Sea.” What makes this body of water so important—and dangerous—is that it is where the interests of China, the other states that border it, and the United States come into conflict. 

Kaplan does not argue that war is inevitable. But it is possible, for a variety of reasons. The military rise of China alarms its neighbors. Will they “bandwagon” with China, or seek counterbalancing alignment with the United States? How will China react if weaker states in the region choose the latter course? The states in the region have competing claims to three archipelagos in the South China Sea: the Pratas in the north (claimed by China but controlled by Taiwan), the Paracels in the northwest (claimed by both China and Vietnam), and the Spratlys in the southeast (claimed by multiple states but coveted by China). Will these competing claims spark conflict?