A book review of Robert Kaplan’s Asia’s Cauldron

Robert D. Kaplan is a well-known journalist who has authored popular works on international issues, such as Balkan

South China Sea from Wikipedia Commons.
South China Sea by NASA from Wikipedia Commons.

Ghosts and the Coming Anarchy. Kaplan has a knack for writing books on topics about to rise to international prominence; in his most recent work, he has sought to understand the international competition in the South China Sea, which is in the global news this week because of a naval confrontation between Vietnam and China.

Kaplan’s works typically try to show the legacies of history for contemporary issues, and this book is no exception. He begins by describing the historical influence of India upon Vietnam, which he depicts as a kind of cultural shatter zone between two great Asian powers. One of the strengths of his work is that he has traveled widely in Asia while writing it, so he can draw on conversations that he has had from Vietnam to Singapore. He also has read widely in history, so the work is interspersed with allusions to Walter Benjamin, Livy, Machiavelli and Thucydides, which are are generally well-chosen and insightful. It is this ability to put contemporary issues into a broad historical and geographical context that is Kaplan’s strength.

Kaplan convincingly argues that this region will be the heart of global affairs in the 21st century, not only because of the rapid growth of many of these states, but also because of demographics. As he points out, more than half the world’s merchant shipping passing through waters in this region, which is unsurprising given both Japan and China’s need for energy, and the scale of exports from nations such as Korea. Of course, the South China sea also may have oil and natural gas reserves, although the importance of those can be over-emphasized. The question of honor and nationalism is perhaps more important to understanding why Asian states would place such importance on barren reefs and scattered islands, many of which lack any access to fresh water.

Kaplan compares the United States’ position in the region to that of Athens after the disastrous Sicilian expedition. The United States has turned inward, but it is U.S. power that ensures globalization. In his view, the nations of the region can only balance China’s rise with the support of the United States. This presents nations throughout the region with difficulty choices. Do “status quo” powers such as Australia hold fast to their alliance to the United States, even as China continues its rapid rise? What if U.S. priorities shift, despite the “pivot to Asia”? While nations may not have a clear strategic vision for how to respond to the changing balance of power they do agree one one thing: they all want more submarines and ships, even if they don’t really have the resources to afford or maintain them (as may be the case, Kaplan suggests, with Vietnam’s recent order of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia). It is for this reason that a nation such as Singapore is now one of the top ten arms importers in the world. As for China, Kaplan points out that it spends only around two percent of its GDP on defense, while the United States spends 4.7 percent. In other words, China has lots of room for growth. Kaplan argues that the South China sea resembles the Caribbean a century ago for the United States, in that it is a logical local for a growing power to exercise its influence.

Kaplan’s work is a well-written and engaging tour of the region, which explains both why these contests are critical, but also why there may be some reason for optimism. Indeed, the tone of the work is much less bleak than Therese Delpech’s Savage Century: Back to Barbarism, which dealt with the topic of China’s rise by drawing on the European experience that led to World War One. Still, Kaplan’s work is similar to Delpech’s is that he is not primarily known as an Asian scholar. While he conducted a number of interviews with policy-makers throughout the region, his work does not draw on literature in any of the languages of the region, such as Vietnamese or Chinese. Of course some states in the region speak English -such as Australia and Singapore- but the inability to read Chinese source material on the topic is a major drawback. While Kaplan brings a wealth of historical comparisons to his analysis, he draws on Livy, Machiavelli and Gellner, not Zhu Xi or Miyamoto Musashi. It’s not that I think that one cannot benefit from a comparison of two major world regions, which inevitably means that is not possible to speak all of the relevant languages. But in the end, without a deep understanding of the language and culture of the region, some of Kaplan’s insights seem superficial, such as when his experience observing crowds in upscale malls in Kuala Lumpur led him to meditate on the strengths of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.

Could someone do work on on Latin America without reading either Spanish or Portuguese, or being familiar with Jose Vasconcelos and Euclides da Cunha? This is a predictable academic critique, but it is none the less valid despite that. Although Kaplan has traveled in the region, he does not have the deep knowledge of Southeast Asia that comes with years of a sustained engagement. This doesn’t mean that there is not value in his broad overview of affairs in the South China Sea. But it lacks the nuance and richness that someone from the region, or who had a deep first-hand experience in these cultures, might have brought. Some of his descriptions read as being overly ambitious or even antiquated, such as his description of Singapore: “At work was the abstract genius of the Chinese, who understand the conceptual utility of empty spaces; as opposed to the Indianized Malay mind, which is more at home in the world of thickly colored and deliciously cluttered textiles, with their floral and cartouche patterns (as evidenced by the displays in the nearby museum).”

Kaplan also seems strangely sympathetic to authoritarian rule, and celebrates leaders such as Malaysia’s Mahathir and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. There is no question but that Lee Kuan Yew was a remarkable leader, and that Singapore has had economic growth that has been nothing short of breathtaking. But at times his sympathies for autocrats are reminiscent of the argument that democracy can only be afforded once a state reaches a certain level of development. What then of contemporary India? Lee’s autobiographies receive what for Kaplan is the highest of praise; they are “contenders for inclusion in Plutarch’s early-second-century AD The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans.” Not content with singing the praises of Lee Kuan Yew, Kaplan also points to other great autocrats in Morocco, Jordan and Oman. This section of the book reads as a strange digression, which somehow engages in a discussion of the Arab Spring, in the midst of a book on the South China Sea. For Kaplan, economic miracles bring personal freedoms. The value of democracy seems uncertain: “But is a chaotic Middle Eastern democracy better than the rule of Chinese, Singaporean, Malaysian and Vietnamese autocrats who have overseen growth rates in GDP of 10 percent annually for significant periods over the past three decades? Here the debate gets interesting.” One can’t help but have the cynical thought when reading these lines, that this controversy may have been inserted into the work to attract media attention. How else to explain lines such as this: “Lee Kuan Yew in particular holds out the possibility, heretical to an enlightened Western mind, that democracy may not be the last word in human political development.”

Some of the text in the book also seems to draw on long outdated ideals from Modernization Theory: “For 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 an even lower standard of modern institutional consciousness than those from Spain.” It is hard to know what do with the prejudices in such a passage, or in his overall portrayal of the Philippines. For all of the Philippines’ many challenges, are such descriptions truly helpful to understand its economic history after World War Two?  If the Iberian legacy is truly so culturally disastrous, what are we to make of the rapid growth of Brazil and Peru, or the fact that Chile’s per capita GDP is now greater than that of some European countries, such as Croatia? He also seems to praise the French colonizers of Vietnam who “stayed for less than a hundred years (even as they brought education and development in their wake. . . ”

This is a strange form of postcolonial analysis, which does not focus on neocolonial relations after independence, but rather argues that nation’s modern economic development depends of the comparative benefits of their colonizers. Whatever happened to Kaplan during his time in the Philippines, he is not able to finish the chapter on that country without arguing that it lacks a national cuisine, so that he dismisses what food it does have with a passing mention of its  “indifferently cooked rice”? Kaplan seems disgusted with the entire country: “This is a borrowed culture, without the residue of civilizational richness that is apparent at the archaeological sites in places like Vietnam and Indonesia, to say nothing of China and India.” Is civizilational even a word? In this passage it seems that the Philippines failings are not to be found in Iberia after all; the country simply lacked a civilization to start with. It is true that Kaplan talks about the Philippines’ experience as a U.S. colony. But he does not blame the U.S. for the nation’s current problems, but rather seems to suggest that this proves how flawed the Philippines truly is: “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.”

In the end, Kaplan’s work is an intriguing tour of the region, which nonetheless does not demonstrate a deep enough understanding of the cultures, economies and languages there to enable us to have confidence in his insights. Despite the book’s many strengths, particularly his engaging writing style, the book’s flaws would keep me from recommending it as a text in a class.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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