Asia’s cauldron by Robert D. Kaplan
The South China Sea and the end of a stable pacific
[Depicts regional issues of South China Sea – Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, & Thailand with respect to China’s aggressive territorial claims that conflicts with rest of the countries in the same space]
Europe is a landscape and East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries. The most contested areas of the globe in the last century lay on dry land in Europe, particularly in the flat expanse that rendered the eastern and western borders of Germany artificial, and thus exposed to the intensive to-ring and fro-ring of armies. But starting in the last phase of the Cold War the demographic, economic, military axis of the earth has measurably shifted to the opposite end of Eurasia, where the spaces between the principal nodes of population are overwhelmingly maritime.
Truly military power is moving to Asia, but the worst of the 20th century might be avoided The stopping power of water is an impediment to invasion because while a state can build a naval force and transport an army across the sea with it, such a state will find it much more difficult to land an army on a hostile shore, and then move it inland to subdue permanently a hostile population.
In the 19th century, as the Qing dynasty became the sick-man of East Asia, China lost much of its territory - the southern tributaries of Nepal and Burma to Great Britain; Indochina to France; Taiwan and the tributaries of Korea and Sakhalin to Japan; and Mongolia, Amuria and Ussuraia to Russia.
Now Vietnam looms in America’s destiny once again. Once again the Vietnamese are pleading for America’s help. This time the pleas are subtle and quiet and no ground troops are being asked for. This time it is not a war that they want America to fight; it is only the balance of power that they want America to maintain. They want America as a sturdy air and naval presence in the South China Sea for decades to come. Vietnam was now utterly friendless - the victory over the Americans a distant memory. “The Vietnamese don’t have amnesia regarding the war against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s,: A Western diplomat told me. The Vietnamese have not forgotten that 20% of their country is uninhabitable because of unexploded American ordnance or because of the effect of the defoliant Agent Orange, nothing will ever grow on significant part of the landscape
In the war, Vietnamese lost 3 million citizens (one out of 10 killed or wounded), been pummeled with 1.5 million tons of munitions - twice the tonnage dropped on all of Europe and Asia during WWII and lived through a war that created 7 million refugees in South Vietnam and destroyed the industry and infrastructure of North Vietnam. Yet, they had put the war behind them in a way that many Americans hadn’t. They had no national mourning memorials like the Vietnam Wall in Washington. They did not write books about the war.
Explained another Vietnamese diplomat: “China invaded Vietnam seventeen times. The US invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive the Mexicans are about that. We grow up with text book full of series of national heroes who fought China”
An American plant manager told me that his company chose Vietnam for its high-tech operation through a process of elimination. “We needed low labor costs. We had no desire to locate in Eastern Europe or Africa (which didn’t have the Asian work ethic). In China wages are already starting to rise. Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslim and that scares us away. Thailand has already became unstable. SO Vietnam loomed for us: it’s like China was two decades ago, on the verge of boom. We give our employees in Vietnam standardized intelligence tests. They score higher than our employees in the US”, he added..
Indeed, the upscale malls of Kuala Lumpur, dedicated as they are to fetish and fantasy, raise consumerism to the status of an ideology. Observing the rushing crowds and thick exotica of a small inside the Petronas Towers - Malay Muslim women, their hair hidden underneath tudungs in every primary color, Indian women in equally stunning saris, Chinese women in Western clothes.
In ‘ The Theory of the Leisure Class’, Veblen, one of America’s most brilliant and quirky social critics, wrote over a century ago about the consumerist hunger for useless products, brand names, and self-esteem through shopping sprees. He may have coined the term, ‘conspicuous consumption”,
It was Indian Muslim Traders arriving by sea in the 12th and 13th centuries who are thought to have originally brought Islam to the Malay Peninsula. Whereas Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew buttressed local patriotism with secularism, Mahathir buttressed Malaysian patriotism with Islam, whose appeal was limited to the dominant Malays. Bilateral military ties between Malaysia and the United States are extremely close. The last three chiefs of the Malaysian navy are graduates of the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
In the heart of Singapore stands a diminutive and elegant monument to the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng was arguably among the greatest men of the 21st century, because he dramatically lifted the living standards of close to a billion people throughout East Asia by introducing a version of capitalism to the Chinese economy. It was thrown out of a Malay dominated federation in the 1960s because Singapore’s leaders insisted on a multiethnic meritocracy. Thus Singapore found itself alone amid a newly constituted and hostile Malaysia, which controlled Singapore’s access to freshwater, while a pro-communist Indonesian demographic behemoth was breathing down Singapore's neck. Singapore was as small and alone in its region as Israel was in its; it was no irony that Israel played a large role in training Singapore’s armed forces. The Singaporean business model would decades later be an argument in favor of soft power, but some Singaporean officials despise the term. One Singaporean after another told me. “Soft power is only relevant after you have developed hard power”.
It is a harsh but true reality: capitalist prosperity leads to military acquisitions. States in the course of rapid development do more trade with the outside world and consequently develop global interests that require protection by means of hard power. Europe’s relative decline in military power in our own era is possibly only because Europe free rides off secure sea line of communication provided by the United States Navy and Air Force. The same defense official said, “There are three developed countries in the world that are very serious about national service - South Korea, Israel and us”.
What happens to South China Sea, which is not just about newly strong states asserting their territorial claims, not just about a new medievalism born of weak central government and global Islam? Of course, we could have a combination of both: of a comparatively weaker China that coupled with a more decentralized Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia might reignite such problems as piracy and refugees flow, even as the US Navy and Air Force retain their relative regional dominance. Don’t think of the region as necessarily going in one direction, in other words.