The Sea at the Center

The Sea at the Center April 22, 2014

Robert Kaplan argues in Asia’s Cauldron that control of the South China Sea is going to be critical in the geopolitics of this century.

According to Ian Morris’s NYTBR review, “Kaplan starts out from some basic economics. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage (including four-fifths of all the oil burned in China) passes through the South China Sea. This commerce, Kaplan says, has turned that waterway into ‘the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans — the mass of connective tissue where global sea routes coalesce,’ investing its straits, shoals and islands with extraordinary strategic significance. At the heart of Kaplan’s book is a striking analogy that aims to explain what this will mean in the 21st century: ‘China’s position vis-à-vis the South China Sea,’ he suggests, ‘is akin to America’s position vis-à-vis the Caribbean Sea in the 19th and early 20th centuries.’”

Morris finds Kaplan’s analogy between US control of the Panama Canal and China’s control of the South China Sea compelling: “‘It was domination of the Greater Caribbean Basin,’ Kaplan concludes, ‘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 a rather similar way, he suggests, the South China Sea now links the trade of the Pacific and Indian Oceans; consequently, ‘were China to ever replace the U.S. Navy as the dominant power in the South China Sea — or even reach parity with it — this would open up geostrategic possibilities for China comparable to what America achieved upon its dominance of the Caribbean.’ Because of this, the South China Sea is ‘on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world.’”

Kaplan doesn’t envision Chinese conquest of Southeast Sais, but something more akin to Findlandization: “Southeast Asia’s governments ‘will maintain nominal independence but in the end abide by foreign policy rules set by Beijing.’”

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