The book is an eclectic mix of the geo-strategic, economic, cultural and military viewpoints covering the area of the South China Sea and its importance in the decades to come. The importance of the area is undisputed and the author does a good job of presenting this clearly, while clearly writing for a lay audience - i.e. not really going into the level of detail level required by an expert.
After an introduction, which covers the relevant maps and the trade route / resource reasons that make the South China Sea so important globally, is followed by individual chapters, covering the development trajectories of the countries bordering the South China Sea. This means China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, with comments on the role of the US, Japan and Australia factored in, too.
The author certainly went to great lengths travel-wise, in order to write the book. Country visits and rafts of first hand interviews have been organized and carried out, all of which informed the work. This makes the book an engaging and varied read. Therefore it is not an in-depth analysis and uses fewer analytical sources than a book more geared towards an expert reader. It also means that the author is more at the mercy of the statements of individual interview partners for his opinion, somewhat but not always ameliorated by the number of interviews.
As such the book tackles an important topic in a way to attract the largest possible audience, something for which the author definitely needs to be commended. At the same time it is just frustrating that some more analytical sweat was not invested - those last missing 5% in effort cost the book an easy 5 stars in my opinion, as they mean many grating details, which were not sweated out (such as the complete omission of the period and importance of the Japanese occupation of Vietnam in WW2, a very one-sided understanding of the economic success of Malaysia, an almost pre-formed conclusion that the Chinese development is about to end prematurely, etc.). Still, a worthy buy nevertheless.
With a fine eye for both detail and the big picture, Robert Kaplan tells us the story of the South China Sea and lays out the challenge posed by the present tension there. It is on China's doorstep but functions as 'the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce.' Asia will define the 21st Century as Europe did the 20th. Europe is about who controls the land. Asia is about the sea, and America has controlled the Asia-Pacific since its 1945 defeat of Japan. But, as Kaplan, explains, "the age of simple American dominance, as it existed through all of the Cold War decades and immediately beyond, will likely have to pass. A more anxious, complicated world awaits us." The complication is the rise of China with its regional economic and political muscle with an America that appears to have no straight-forward policy of how to deal with it. Kaplan's conclusion:- "Just as German soil constituted the military front line of the Cold War, the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military front line of the coming decades." Libraries are filled with books on China and Asia. Few are as accessible and vividly clear as Asia's Cauldron.
Fascinating survey of the South China sea issue that does a great job of drawing out its strategic and symbolic importance. The historical analogy between the US and the Caribbean and China and the South China sea really works and is thought-provoking. The book begins with an overall survey but its real strength are the individual country chapters which follow, combining as they do narrative and anecdotal colour with insight and knowledge.
Robert Kaplan could not have timed this book any better with China laying aggressive claims to oil exploration rights off the Vietnam coast. He gives a thorough analysis of each of the principal players at threat from China's long game in the South China Sea.
Most impressive is how he uses a consistent analytical framework which is devoid of obvious emotion and bias. In particular he compares China's increasing dominance in the South China Sea to how the US seized control of the Caribbean from European powers in the 19th Century. This gives an air of inevitability to the shift of power now taking place and how US will be marginalized sooner or later.
Whist he sees the risk of military confict flaring up, his thesis does not depend on it. Sheer military might in the region will likely be enough for China - when a big tatooed guy muscles down the street, he does not need violence, his visible presence can be enought to intimidate others.
Kaplan also gives engaging profiles and insights into key leaders in Asia - Lee Kwan Yew, Mahathir and Deng - and the cast of fools which have run the Philippines.
I found this the perfect lens through which to view developments in Asia. But more than that I found his approach to be very useful in viewing geopolitical developments elsewhere - such as Ukraine and the Middle East.
This book gives a very good and objective reasoning, about the developing tension in the south china sea. The chapters about the autocratic nation builders of the region, is one of the best I have read. Considering the author is an american, the book gives an outlook of the countries interests in the region that is logical for the specific countries, and is more from a human perspective than an american one.. The downside is at times mr.Kaplan tries to describe scenery with a failed attemt at writing like Oscar Wilde. But when the book is at its best, it shows incredible insight, and a man who is worthy of your attention.
One chapter (Singapore and malaysia ) I would have no problem recomending, as part of a high school curriculum. In other words a very good book..
The two maps at the start of the book tell the story perfectly.
In the first larger map of East Asia it's clear where the main trade routes go, and where the various pieces of the jigsaw fit together. It's also clear that from Beijing's point of view, China is somewhat fenced in by that first chain of islands that stretches from the South China Sea to Japan, Taiwan included, and that its arterial trade routes could be seriously compromised should anything untoward happen. This explains China's strategic needs, and its endless belligerent jostling over seemingly innocuous rocks in the middle of nowhere.
The second map is of the South China Sea, fenced in as it is by Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Phillippines, and Taiwan. This is the crucial artery for Chinese trade, and also a source of probable energy in its own right. The map delineates all the claims made on the various sandbanks and islands, including China's seemingly ludicrous Cow's Tongue that dangles all the way into the SCS. Kaplan explains how each comes about, and how the various bits of the tactical puzzle - Vietnam's strength, Singapore's pocket hercules, The Philippines' weakness - intermesh with Beijing's ambitions.
It's a clear and fascinating guide, and the reader is left with little doubt that what happens in the SCS will be crucial for decades to come, and the main reason why the US cannot afford to lift its focus from the region (despite the distraction Russia seems to be providing in Ukraine). Good stuff.
An up to date orientation, and a good one at that, about this very important area, which is steadily growing in significance also for the rest of the world. I missed, however, some information about the importance of India and Burma in this game, seeing the text quite a few times refers to the Indo-Pacific. This 'omission' does not, though, distract from the good information the book gives about South East Asia east of the Malacca Strait. The book is highly recommended.