Book Review: Robert D. Kaplan, Asia`s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific

One of the perks that my naval chaplain colleagues get to enjoy are cruises (I’m sorry, exercises).  Among these, the most favoured seem to be Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), when a ship or two from the Royal Canadian Navy`s Pacific fleet heads for Hawaii to participate in a multinational, US-led naval exercise.   I say US led because no other country has as many warships, aircraft carriers and submarines in the Pacific as the US Navy does, though China does appear to be a rising competitor (which is the subject of this book).

Actually I shouldn’t envy my RCN chaplain friends that much.  One padre I greatly respect did yeoman service on HMCS Protecteur, an aging tanker and supply ship, when she was disabled by an engine fire while training in the Pacific in 2014 and had to be towed back to Canada, where she was eventually taken out of service.   It was an arduous and dangerous `cruise`, and since the Pro`s laundry facilities were destroyed in the fire, when her crew finally reached Hawaii, as my friend described it, their uniforms had been reduced to dirty rags.

Why Canada contributes ships from its small and aging navy to exercises like RIMPAC is a part of a larger story of the history of the strategic alliances that have contributed to the world order as it has continued since 1945.  Robert Kaplan tells part of this larger story, focusing on how relations among the countries bordering the South China Sea – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Tawian and, of course China – have been maintained until recently by the projection of US military power.  This is a story of international trade and navies and the relations between the two, which, as Mahan knew well, are inseparable.

Sadly, Canadian readers will find no mention of our small navy in this book, but they will be startled to know how many other countries`navies are mentioned.  Just one statistic among many is remarkable: by 2030, the Asian nations, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, are expected to purchase a total of 111 submarines, as well as other naval and air assets.   The reason for this buildup can be found any time that the media mentions one of the obscure islands, such as the Spratlys, where China is building a formibable ring of bases, airfields and missile platforms to match its growing navy.  As Kaplan notes, the way military spending is currently going, China “will have more warships in the Western Pacific than the US Pacific Fleet“ by the 2020s (35).

The paradox, as Kaplan describes it, is that while all these Asian nations are building up their militaries, they are all interconnected by maritime trade.   Half the world`s merchant tonnage passes through the South China Sea, which Kaplan describes  the mass of connective tissue where global sea routes coalesce“.  Most of China`s oil consumption comes through these waters.   A realist would conclude that no country, not even China, would risk disrupting this status quo.  So why the naval arms race?

The answer is partly because of history.  Kaplan describes meeting Chinese party officials and bureacrats for whom the memory of China`s colonial dismemberment in the 19th century is still a humiliation to be redressed.  Only a powerful China can guarantee that this never happens again.  At the same time the Vietnamese, who have ancient and modern memories of their wars of independence, think far more of their conflicts with China than they do of their war with the US.  As one Vietnamese diplomat told Kaplan, `Think of how touchy Canadians are about America, now imagine if America had repeatedly sent troops into Canada`.   At the same time countries like Malaysia and the Philippines wonder how they can protect their independence and their claims to maritime resources and fisheries.

The other part of the answer is the shifting balace of geostrategic power.  The question of how far the US will pivot to Asia, and what that means, is still open.   As Kaplain puts it, either the US carefully but firmly asserts its presence in the region, and pushes back against China, or the lesser countries in the region will be susecptible to a process of `Finlandization“ by which they fall within the Chinese sphere of influence and thus lose the substance of their independence.  This may ultimately not be something that the US and its allies want to go to war over. If push comes to shove, is the US any more likely to go to war over Taiwan than, say, Estonia?    But unless China sees was as a real possibility if it pushes too hard and too far, then the price of letting China gain influence will result in a situation akin to that of the US acquiring the Caribbean after the Spanish-American War, so that the South China Sea becomes `China`s Caribbean`. 

All these questions now seem more relevant at the prospect of a Trump presidency in the US.  Much has been made of Trump`s foreign policy, or lack thereof.   A number of conservative foreign policy experts have criticized him for scattered statements about wanting America`s allies to pay for the protection that the US has so far been giving them.  As they write,  `(Trump`s) insistence that close allies such as Japan must pay vast sums for protection is the sentiment of a racketeer, not the leader of the alliances that have served us so well since World War II“.

Kaplan explores that very point in his analysis of the US security arrangement with the Philippines, which now seems to regret its decision to close US bases such as Subic Bay.    The Philippines simply does not have the military or naval forces to deter China, which is pushing hard up against them.   As one analyst tells Kaplan, the Philippines are like a propety with a ramshacke fence and a big dog, the dog, of course, being the US Navy.  Take the dog away and the fence doesn`t look so impressive.

Canada is in a similar position to the Philippines, I think, in that with all due respect to our gallant bur small and rusting Navy, we have no strategic influence in the far Pacific, and only a minimal ability to assert our will and presence in our part of the Pacific.  Fortunately, sandwiched between Seattle and Alaska, our west coast is within the US zone of vital influence, and so we can continue to enjoy our place under the American unbrella for the forseeable future.  The unpleasant dilemma for us is that these are populist and protectionist days in the US.   Neither Trump nor Saunders appear that interested in the complex web of foreign security arrangements that maintain the order described in Kaplan`s book.   The people likely to vote for Trump and Saunders seen uninterested in the opinions of foreign policy experts, since, after all, those are the guys who led the US into Iraq and Afghanistan.   If protectionism is seen as the cure for the jobs and wages lost to globalization and cheap Chinese imports, then the web of trade that inclines its participants towards peace in the South China Sea looks less influential.

Whatever ships we manage to send to the next RIMPAC, Canada is unlikely to influence what happens in Asia’s cauldron, but it’s possible that we aren`t going to like where we end up.  In the event of a sustained naval war between the US and China, Canada will have a role that our public and media have scarcely imagined.   It wouldn`t be the first time its happened like this.  In World War Two we built a large navy of small ships from scratch to help sweep the Atlantic clear of submarines.  We built small ships because that was all our shipyards were capable of.   We ran a few larger ships donated by our allies (Bonaventure and Uganda) but our speciality was little ships in big seas.    In the event of a long war in the Pacific, I have no idea if Canada could generate a similar navy, given that the technology required to survive and fight in today’s naval battlespace is light years beyond what our Flower class corvettes took to sea in 1945, or whether we could train enough sailors to the necessary standards.     Let`s hope we aren`t tested.