Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific

Author: Robert D. KaplanAsias Cauldron

ISBN: 9780812994322

Publisher: Random House

Year: 2014

Price: $26.00

Reviewed by Dr. Moritz Pöllath, History Department, Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany


Asia’s Cauldron already has been extensively reviewed and earned high praise and respect by national newspapers and members of the security policy community. This review will join the general applause of Robert D. Kaplan’s great accomplishment and focus on selected aspects important to the general reader, historian or security policy analyst who have not yet picked up one of Kaplan’s works or Asia’s Cauldron. In the last installment of the author’s three books on Asia – Monsoon (2010), The Revenge of Geography (2012), and Asia’s Cauldron (2014)– Kaplan delivers a compelling insight into the power of geography and ideas with respect to the Indo-Pacific.

With historical depth he argues convincingly to consider Southeast Asia as part “of an organic continuum that is more properly labeled the Indo-Pacific” (p. xvi). This historical and geographic observation was noticed by current U.S. security policy makers and underlines Kaplan’s influence as a national security writer and analyst. On 30 May 2018 the U.S. Pacific Command was renamed into U.S. Indo-Pacific Command “in recognition of the increasing connectivity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” (PACOM.MIL 2018), stated by Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis. The Secretary of Defense is known to be aware of Kaplan’s work and his geopolitical acumen of the regional and global security implications emanating from the disputes over the South China Sea between China and its neighboring states. Chapter by chapter Kaplan provides a keen analysis of every nation directly affected by China’s rise grounded in his keen understanding of the importance of cultural memory and history.

His first chapter “The Humanist Dilemma” constitutes an intellectual challenge to widespread views of the danger of China’s rise as well as to the assumed importance of values in international relations. Kaplan challenges the comparison between China and Imperial Germany prior to World War I with his geopolitical analysis: “Germany was primarily a land power, owing to the geography of Europe, China will be primarily a naval power, owing to the geography of East Asia” (p.7). Invoking political scientist John Mearsheimer’s observation of the “stopping power of water”, Kaplan argues that while the South China Sea is and will remain heavily militarized, the current situation should not be compared to the 20th century, when European armies faced each other on land with no straits or water separating them. The difficulty of landing an army on hostile shore and “subdue permanently a hostile population” (p.7) is just one of his insights against a quick comparison. For the reader his further arguments whether the South China Sea constitutes a “Second Persian Gulf” or can be compared to the importance of the Caribbean for the U.S. and its rise to world power with the Spanish-American War 1898 are all enriching the reader’s view on world history.

While Kaplan’s argumentation on military forces and national strategies in the South China Sea is impeccable, he surpasses his trade when he engages the “moralist dilemma”. In international relations theory Realism has often been challenged by newer approaches to explain state behavior, especially Constructivism which states that meaning is constructed (Wendt 1999) or Liberalism which focuses on national values and characteristics. Throughout the book he elaborates his thesis that in the contest over the South China Sea amoral Realism which is focused on power and interests will be the driving force behind the crises and conflicts ahead. According to his observation, in the Indo-Pacific “there are no philosophical questions to ponder” (p. 16). Readers and Western politicians might be challenged by Kaplan’s strong argument of the weaknesses of morality and multipolarity as a solution for the region. Not only does he elaborate how true military multipolarity “benefits the state that is most geographically central to the region” (p.27) – China; the author goes on to argue from his historical experience in the Balkans and reading of human history that “behind all questions of morality lie questions of power” (p.31). The U.S. and if there ever should be a strong and coherent EU Foreign and Security policy for this region are advised to acknowledge his analysis that a military dominant authoritarian China might pursue stability over morality in the Western pacific.

Kaplan is not a bleak, amoral determinist. Vice versa, citing from historian Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, he introduces the idea that “Asia cannot continue to change economically without changing politically” (p. 28). In addition Kaplan does not paint a “yellow menace” message throughout the book or pursues the notion of inevitable war between China and its neighboring states. He reminds the reader though of the Chinese cultural memory of humiliation at the turn of the 20th century which is shaping the current Chinese worldview: first, China never again wants to be exploited by foreign powers as in between 1839 (First Opium War) and 1905 (Russo-Japanese War). Second, as any other global power in history before Peking is building up an appropriate military to guard its interests and expanding reach (p.43).

The Financial Times calls Kaplan “an ultra-realist”, but I propose the label of “soft determinist”. Kaplan’s realist reading of geography on history is firmly grounded in Western thought and verified by current events in the South China Sea. At the same time he incorporates cultural and social factors in his analysis which can modify geographical and demographic trajectories, thereby establishing a convincing and weighted hierarchy of analytical dimensions. He remainscool-headedin his approach to the cultures and ideas of the Indo-Pacific and hesitanttowards moralizing views, thereby making possible deep discussions of the style of government with sight to Chinese authoritarianism and the American model of government (p.27) in an accessible and entertaining style.

Another common view he challenges is the history of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Kaplan convincingly demonstrates that not 1975 but 1995 was “the critical year for contemporary Vietnam” (p.53). By normalizing relations with the United States, joining ASEAN and entering intothe EU-Vietnam Framework Cooperation Agreement (FCA), Vietnam joined the world and former enemies have become friends and established security relations. Here the author displays his insight into the societies of the Indo-Pacific and his prolific research pays off: Although the Vietnamese have not forgotten the atrocities of the war, “it is just that three quarters of all Vietnamese were born after the ‘American War’” (p.54). Relations today are good because Vietnamese like the Americans and remember from their history that China invaded Vietnam seventeen times (p.54-56) while the Vietnamese won the war against Washington instead. While the war plays an important role for Western historical memory with sight to the 1968 movement, from the Vietnamese perspective the war was part of Saigon’s decolonization struggle against the French and the US, followed by Vietnam’s own invasion of Cambodia which resulted in another invasion by the Chinese (p.59).

Prominent voices from the Indo-Pacific complete his research and analysis with Lee Kuan Yew’s “rebuke to the received wisdom in the United States about the Vietnam War” (p.106). Historians challenged the notion put forward by the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations that the U.S. was fighting a communist threat in Vietnam to the degree that the Domino Policy of the Cold War was questioned altogether and the Vietnam War is often narrated as a misguided maelstrom of policies and intentions. Modern works still debate the degree of Communist ideology in the Vietnamese leadership (Vu 2018). Citing the former prime minister of Singapore to make his point, Lee Kuan Yew argued like then Vice President Richard M. Nixon during his Asia tour in 1953 before that Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines were facing armed communist insurgencies in 1965 and Washington’s intervention in Vietnam bought these countries time to pursue a path of non-alignment (Indonesia) or repel communism.

Whether or not there is a good autocrat is discussed by Kaplan in his chapters on Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Both chapters challenge the reader to think whether or not autocracy can be a stepping stone towards democracy for newly formed nations. Invoking John Stuart Mill’s cunning analysis that order is a prerequisite of progress the reader is invited to dwell on Asian history and its implications for our contemporary world (p.108). In this chapter Kaplan leaves the reader with a provoking thought from classical political philosophy: “Lee and Mahathir may have governed in the spirit of Aristotle, with their mixed regimes that prepared the way to democratic rule” (p. 113).

Robert D. Kaplan achieves with Asia’s Cauldron another great book on current geopolitics and history steeped in Western philosophy and breaks down international relations theory for the general reader with regard to the South Pacific Sea. At present no other author can deliver this enriching mix of disciplines for the general reader, security analyst or politician. Asia’s Cauldron and his other works are marked by one thing Kaplan does best: challenge the reader with ideas and possibilities “heretical to an enlightened Western mind” (p.114). Following this tradition he does not tell the reader what he has to think but what he should think critically about and to come to his own conclusions in current affairs – in this instance on the state of geopolitics in the South China Sea.


Works and websites consulted:

Wendt, Alexander.Social theory of international politics. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999.

U.S. Pacific Command. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Holds Change of Command Ceremony. May 30, 2018:

Vu,Tuong.  Vietnam’s Communist Revolution:  The Power and Limits of Ideology.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.


Suggested citation

Dr. Moritz Pöllath (2018), Review of “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific”, by Robert D. Kaplan, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 11, no. 6.