Who will rule the busiest sea lane of the world?

Robert S. Kaplan: Asia’s Cauldron. The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. ⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-0-8129-9906-8 China is creating facts in the South China Sea by building airstrips on disputed islands like the Spratley’s, adding aerial defence systems and dredging natural harbours to make them accessible for larger warships. At the same time China’s navy is expanding and modernizing: submarines, cruise-missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, stealth fighters and space-based command and control assets make China a formidable foe that not even the US aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific wish to confront. Beijing asserts what it calls a historical right to dominate the South China Sea and builds up the military power to defend it.

Robert Kaplan has visited the region and interviewed many officials in the countries having a stake in the question of who should rule the South China Sea: The United States Navy as the guardian of free sea lines of communication in the busiest shipping area of the world? Or China in its effort to exploit a situation where the military and diplomatic influence of the US has passed its climax, in its endeavour to replace an international system dominated by the US by a multi-polar system with Beijing as a major player? The fact that huge deposits of oil and natural gas may lie hidden below the sea floor doesn’t make the answer any easier.

The sustained economic growth has given China the possibility to catch up in terms of military modernization: less numerous but smarter armed forces. This in turn has fueled a spectacular arms race in the region. Singapore eyes the prohibitively expensive US made Joint Strike Fighter as its next generation war plane. Kaplan and the officials he talked to in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan portray China as a growing threat that has to be kept in check. Even Vietnam, once an enemy of the United States, feels more at ease with the status quo – the American hegemony – than with a future dictated by China and makes the case for a long term US naval presence in the South China Sea.

While Kaplan’s book has its merits in explaining the different countries’ twisted relationship with China – he is looking back several hundred years in some cases – and their immediate geostrategic priorities, it fails to explain in more detail the Chinese point of view. We learn little about China’s objectives and its long term vision for the region. The possibility that China’s neighbours might succumb to “Finlandization” – submission through Chinese economic pressure – is mentioned, but Kaplan does not elaborate on it. China’s use of soft power to seduce other countries goes unnoticed. The author also fails to explore in an unbiased way the possibility of China exerting a benign regional hegemony similar to the European Union’s regional dominance over the Mediterranean Sea. China is hostile, full stop – that’s the credo.

Kaplan belongs to the Realist School of political science, established by Hans J. Morgenthau in the 1950s, seeing international relations primary as a struggle for supremacy and analyzing shifts in power balances in terms of strategic interests and the military, political and economic means to reach these goals. This school of thought has however severe limits when it has to explain a globalized world with multiple interdependencies, and Kaplan’s book was already at its publication in 2014 partly out of date in its insistence on conventional military power and its understanding of modern military strategy.

The author advances the argument of “the stopping power of water” to explain why invading a disputed territory is far easier than occupying it, especially when the territory is inhabited by a hostile population. This weakens his own case meant to illustrate China’s dangerous designs. At the same time he fails to see that China has developed, just like Russia, concepts for hybrid warfare: fostering low-intensity internal conflicts by exploiting economic, ethnic or cultural fault lines, disinformation and propaganda spread over social networks, clandestine sabotage acts, subversion of enemy forces and civil servants. This type of warfare is far more subtle and dangerous as it targets the social cohesion of the opponent’s civil society. Its study requires a much more encompassing view of international relations than the Realist School ever has developped.

In 2014 the Ukraine crisis was in full swing, it was and still is a blue-print for the partial success of Russia hybrid warfare, creating “frozen conflicts” that bind the enemy’s political and military resources, situations where the opponent cannot capitulate for political reasons on the one hand and on the other hand is not powerful enough to triumph over his aggressor. A low-intensity war of attrition, waged in the diplomatic and political arena, coupled with an occasional military show of force and the exploitation of ethnical tensions in countries like Malaysia or the Philippines are much more likely to be part of China’s foreign policy than brazen military interventions. The recent dispute over airline codes refering to “Taipei, Taiwan” instead of “Taipei, China” illustrate such an approach. The occupation of this or that reef, the blockade of an Asian competitor or the conquest of Taiwan may simply not be necessary for China to assert its dominance.

Kaplan’s mantra-like emphasis on China’s expanding navy as a proof of its aggressive goals is besides the point, and ironically the author delivers himself the key by quoting the Chinese strategic thinker Sun Tsu: The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. China can wait until the dominance of the South China Sea falls into its lap like a ripe fruit as the role of the US in world affairs is declining. Its modernized navy will not allow China to establish dominance, but to preserve it. Time is on China’s side and it has a notion of time different from ours. It is thinking in decades and centuries, not in legislative periods. Sun Tsu would be pleased to see that his teachings are still a guideline for Chinese policy makers.

Now this book is hard-nosed political science, no-nonsense stuff, a troubling look into the crystal ball. To this I would like to oppose the delightful and delicate music of a Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu:

Floating like dust – the sound of transcendence