June 4th, 2017


Toil and trouble ...

This was another dollar store find, so was picked up without a lot of context or expectation. However, Robert D. Kaplan's Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific is an impressive volume, with its author being on Foreign Policy magazine's “Top 100 Global Thinkers” list, and the book itself being named “one of the best books of the year” (2014) by the Financial Times. Needless to say, a book so highly thought of, and of sufficiently recent vintage, is also a shining example of how that dollar store channel works … as it had no doubt been sitting on a Walmart shelf a few weeks before I found it, but had gone past its “rotate out” date there. A sure win for me!

Again, I had no idea (well, except for the general concept that is suggested by the book's title/subtitle) what I was getting into when I decided that this would be a good add to my active reading mix. I wish I had more of my little bookmarks in here to string together some pithy quotes to give you a sense of the book, but the few I have in there aren't “speaking to me” at the moment (probably things that were significant in context), and I can't even fall back on a chapter listing here, as while most deal with a single country bordering the South China Sea, they're more “evocatively” named, and not really descriptive. Sooo … I guess I'm going to be walking you through a more general description of this on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

Of course, a book dealing with the South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and geopolitics means there's a lot of focus on naval issues, and that's sort of the unifying thread here … how China (am I giving away too much?) is presently the “800lb gorilla” in the area, and will eventually be fielding a bigger navy than the U.S. – and one that will only be interested in controlling its neighboring waters, and not the whole globe's like the U.S. (and Britain before it). Now, as much as I regret the fact, I realize that most folks out there (not the ones who read these reviews, certainly) are pretty geographically illiterate (I once worked with a person who could not understand why we had two files for Virginia, Carolina, and Dakota … and why we didn't have separate files for the “old” states), and might have a challenge picking out the South China Sea on a globe (despite it having as much a mystery about it as when the Fourth of July appears on the calendar), so I was very happy to find that there was an online version of this fascinating map, which I was constantly referring back to while going through the book (and, frankly, this version is a bit more useful, having the assorted different claim lines in color). Another useful map in the book is one that covers more of Asia in general, and here's similar map which puts the area in wider context.

The book starts out (in the Prologue) with the author visiting museums in Vietnam, and considering the remnants of the Champa culture which had been to Vietnam what the Khmer culture was to Cambodia. This serves to set up one of the variables in the region … the Cham had been in place for nearly two thousand years, and were in conflict with China for much of that time … while several of the other players in the region were largely cobbled together from the detritus of European colonial entities. The main text (in Ch.1 - “The Humanist Dilemma”, which mainly sets up the geopolitical setting for the rest of the book) starts out with a great quote:
Europe is a landscape; East Asia is a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
While Kaplan notes that “the South China Sea is so important … that it is on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world” he also points out that “… the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business.” and “There are no philosophical questions to ponder in this new and somewhat sterile landscape of the twenty-first century. It is all about power; the balance of power mainly.” To put China in context he offers:
The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China's leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. {which he contrasts to the “decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world”}
Kaplan sets up an interesting historical parallel between China's intents in the region and the U.S.'s own road to global influence:
China's position vis-à-vis the South China Sea is akin to America's position vis-à-vis the Caribbean Sea in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United States recognized the presence and claims of European powers in the Caribbean, but sought to dominate the region, nevertheless. … Moreover, it was domination of the Greater Caribbean Basin that gave the United States effective control of the Western Hemisphere, which, in turn, allowed it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere.
In the chapter specifically dealing with the implications of these similarities, the author presents fairly detailed looks at the Chinese military, with obvious focus on naval operations, and compares that with what the U.S. can extend into the region, and points out that China only spends around 2% of their GDP on defense, while we spend nearly 5% of ours on the military, clearly suggesting that “China is in better shape to keep increasing its military budgets”.

The first country that the book looks at is Vietnam. Again, I had no idea that there was such a long tradition of an independent state there, and it's pointed out that despite the war (and the sorry demographic details of same are sketched out here), the Vietnamese didn't have the psychic scars over it that we do, quoting a journalist's report that “schoolchildren studied it {the war} as only a brief page in their country's 2,500-year history”. Where America has been marginal to the Vietnamese past, China has been a constant … having invaded the country seventeen times, regarding which a Vietnamese diplomat is quoted as comparing how China is viewed in Vietnam to the U.S.'s relationships with Canada and Mexico … “think of how touchy {they} are about America, now imagine if America had repeatedly sent troops {across the border}”. The author goes into an overview of cultural, political, and economic realities in Vietnam, and the comes up with a great line (especially combined with the surprising move to open old U.S. Naval bases to the U.S. Navy again): “Nothing better illustrates the Vietnamese desire to be a major player in the region than their purchase of six state-of-the-art Kilo-class submarines from Russia.” despite having the ability to train crews and maintain these weapons being “a generational undertaking”.

The next country considered is Malaysia, starting with Kuala Lumpur, which, despite the majority Muslim population, offers malls that “raise consumerism to the status of an ideology”. The country is quite mixed, with about 60% being Muslim, 23% Chinese, and 9% Tamils from southeastern India. The political and economic growth of both China and India is welcomed by those demographics, which, in turn, appears to be pushing the Muslim population towards identifying with Islamic globalism. Kaplan posits a “diffuse, unfocused sense of national identity” in Malaysia, which he notes “was not united even under the British”. Among the historical background presented, there is a fairly detailed look at Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, and who the author credits with being the driving force behind the “economic and technological dynamism” of modern Malaysia. However:
Mahathir's rise in politics is ascribed to his ability to capture Malay resentment toward the other, more advantaged ethnic groups. Unlike the Chinese and the Indians, who had vast homelands to which to return, the Malays had nowhere else to go, and yet {they} felt dispossessed in their own land …
And, the author, discussing the work of another writer, notes that with Mahathir “the sharp dichotomy between 'democracy' and 'authoritarianism' does not seem to apply”, where his regime became at once “more repressive and more responsive” to people's needs, solving problems even as it clamped down on dissent. His model is much studied in the Middle East, as a way of creating a modern thriving country while still being heavily Islamic. However, because of the cultural/racial issues, Malaysia is a solid U.S. ally against China, and gets visits from our navy as often as fifty times a year (up from six in 2003).

At several points in the Malaysia chapter it's mentioned that their military is frequently trying to keep up with Singapore … which seems odd, given the relative sizes of the two. Here's a description from the start of the chapter on Singapore, that I think sort of give the “broad strokes” of the nature of the place:
Pragmatism carried to the furthest degree may not inspire the Western humanist mind, but it has been the only way for Singapore to survive as a physical speck of a city-state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula … Singapore occupies a natural, deep-water port at the narrowest point of the funnel that is the Strait of Malacca – the most important maritime choke point in the world … It was thrown out of a Malay-dominated federation in the 1960's because Singapore's leaders insisted on a multiethnic meritocracy.
Singapore, in some ways modeling on Israel, depends on a formidable military. With only 3.3 million citizens, it has an air force the same size as Australia's, plus an impressive naval presence. Obviously, they aren't interested in sliding backwards to the way things were: “in three decades, Singapore has gone from a malarial hellhole of overpowering smells and polluted, life-threatening monsoon drains to a global economic dynamo”. This chapter is entitled “The Good Autocrat”, and the person in that role is introduced here:
In the early 1960s, Singapore was as poor as many countries in sub-Saharan Africa; by the 1990s, this city-state, one fifth the size of Rhode Island, had a standard of living higher than Australia's. Credit for the miracle went to one man: an English-educated ethnic Chinese barrister, Harry Lee {who later changed his name back to the non-Anglicized Lee Kuan Yew}
Lee tempered the Japanese fascist penchant for order with the lawful rule of the British to achieve a developmental miracle on this small island that comprises 214 square miles at low tide.
Kaplan highly recommends Lee's memoirs, The Singapore Story, which is something that I'll need to check out. He obviously is a fan, and notes that he's constantly asked “influential figures in the Arab and ex-communist worlds”, as well as a who's who of heads of state, what person they felt was greatest second-tier (not a Churchill or Roosevelt) leader, and Lee's name came up again and again, with many, frankly, holding him in awe (Lady Thatcher had read all of his speeches).

In looking at the changes that Lee brought to Singapore, Kaplan pulls in a lot of threads, from geopolitics to Machiavelli, to quotes from John Stewart Mill on Marcus Aurelius. While the specifics of the laws of the land there seem bizarre out of context (being arrested for chewing gum), they're part of a matrix, some elements of which we'd be well to emulate: “Corruption would not be a problem as in other Third World countries. Lee would attack it by simplifying procedures, establishing clear and precise guidelines in business, and making living beyond one's means corroborative evidence in court for taking bribes.” … when one thinks of all the bureaucrats in D.C. who have, on low six-figure salaries, amassed tens of millions of dollars in inexplicable wealth, this sounds like a good plan for “draining the swamp”! Perhaps more than anywhere else in here, the philosophical questions are addressed, with the South Asian autocrats like Lee being compared with regimes elsewhere, especially in the Arab world (the likes of Assad, etc.), but also looking at how the geography of a place like Singapore lends itself to “control”, as opposed to a sprawling entity like China.

The next place dealt with is the Philippines, in a chapter titled “America's Colonial Burden”. I found the following quite telling about the underlying issues:
… the Philippines are not only burdened with hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism, which, with its heavy, pre-Reformation Roman Catholic overtones, brought less dynamism than the British, Dutch, and Japanese varieties experienced elsewhere in the First Island Chain, but they are doubly burdened by the imprint of Mexican colonizers, who represented even a lower standard of modern institutional consciousness than those of Spain.
Kaplan follows this with a rendition of the gleaming, soaring, and “buzzing” capitals of the other countries discussed up to this point in the book, and saying that “the cityscape of … Manila is, by comparison, one of aesthetic and material devastation”, as well as being “somnolent and purposeless”, and quotes an economist as saying that “this is still a bad Latin American economy”, and cites a number of things (down to the details like how private security guard uniforms look) which remind him of Mexico. Of course, the U.S. has been in the Philippines since 1898, and won control of it in the Spanish American War. Many leading lights of the American military over the past century got their skills there, from the obvious of Douglas MacArthur, to the surprising (to me) of Dwight Eisenhower … and its location is extremely important for maintaining American influence in the area.
And yet, despite a century's worth of vast annual outlays of American aid, the Philippines has remained among the most corrupt, dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken societies in maritime Asia, with Africa-like slums and Latin America-style fatalism and class divides.
Of course, the name Ferdinand Marcos comes up immediately when looking at the condition of his country … the author says that Marcos “manifestly represents the inverse of Lee Kuan Yew”, and (in comparison with the other leaders discussed who “left behind functioning states with largely clean institutions”) “left behind bribery, cronyism, and ruin”. The comparisons of what went right elsewhere and what went wrong here are delved into quite a bit in this chapter, plus a bit more about the military (given the U.S.'s large presence) and territorial conflicts in the region (see the map referenced up top).

The penultimate chapter is tantalizingly named “Asia's Berlin”, and deals with Taiwan. What's probably most fascinating in this is the fight for every tiny bit of coral sticking up out of the ocean (which come with oil and gas reserves on the sea floor), and territorial claims that go back thousands of years. Kaplan writes of a visit to the tiny Pratas island, on which Taiwan maintains a runway, a tour of which took under an hour … leading to his comment that land claims such as this are largely “nationalistic posturing”. Of course, in the case of Taiwan vis-à-vis the PRC, this is no small matter … the author describes Taiwan as “that stubborn, inconvenient fact disturbing the peace of Asia” … with both countries' governments claiming to be the legitimate government of all of China, and both (to differing ends) being steeped in many centuries of common history. The figure of Chiang Kai-shek is looked into in detail, of course, with assorted historians' views of the man, and notes on the wartime realities that led to the formation of Taiwan. A bit of military theorizing is thrown out there, with questions on how Taiwan could or couldn't be taken by China … with some Taiwanese officials insisting that the narrow (yet 5x the width of the English Channel) Taiwan Strait would serve as a very effective barrier, both to “Finlandization” (in that there's no land border) and outright invasion (the example of island battles like Iwo Jima is raised). There's also a thought put forward that these days the leading cities in China look more like Taipei than communism, and there's a sense that the longer they can maintain the status quo, the less likely things will get to a war setting.

The final chapter takes a look at China itself, with the complexities involved in running such a large and populous (and diverse despite the “central control”) country. The sense here is that they've given up the economic concept of communism, but not the control aspects, and the author describes meetings with various entities in assorted levels of government, some of which he has enthusiasm for, some less so. I found one bit here amusing: “Though China ratified the Law of the Sea treaty in 1996, it does not really adhere to it; whereas the United States adheres to it, but hasn't ratified it.”, such, I suppose, is international politics. This, of course, is a key issue in the South China Sea (again, note that map), with claims from all parties being all over the place. There's more “philosophy” gone into here, some military projections, and a look at some reasonably recent negotiations … generally, much of this sums up other elements presented earlier in the book.

Asia's Cauldron closes with an Epilogue looking at Borneo … where Kaplan pulls together many of the threads of the book. There's not much of a “conclusion”, however “because different futures are possible, all that I have written is a mere period piece: I have focused on the central drama of the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, that of China's military rise in the area where the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean intersect”.

Despite my finding it at the dollar store this is certainly still available, in hardcover, paperback, ebook, audio format, etc., with the online big boys offering both the print versions at nearly 60% off. Oddly, even with the dollar store channel being in play, the new/used guys don't have this for particularly cheap, with prices (combined with shipping) not being much less than the discount price. Given the accolades this has had, it should likely still be easy enough to find at the brick-and-mortar vendors as well.

Will you like this? Hard to say … it's one of those that if you're into particular genres, you'll love it, but if you're not, it is likely to be less attractive. It hit a lot of my interests, so I quite enjoyed it.

Visit the BTRIPP home page!