Asia’s Cauldron by Robert Kaplan

This book describes the turmoil in the South China sea, where China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam all vie for control over marine and mineral resources. The book consists of thumbnail sketches of each country’s history, economy, political cultural, and position with respect to the South China Sea, and describes the conflicts that have so far taken place. Kaplan takes a relentlessly realist view, arguing that the source of conflict is China’s rise, and the only way to stop the conflict is to maintain a balance of power, which means that the United States must both accommodate China and resist it.

Kaplan has little to say about international law. In a brief discussion of the Law of the Sea Treaty, he argues that if it weren’t for nationalism, the countries could divide up the resources peacefully. He draws a distinction between emotion and intellect–law fails because it can’t contend with emotion. But it’s an odd thing for a balance-of-powers theorist to say: the balance of powers also depends on states acting in their self-interest rather than succumbing to the fires of nationalism. The real problem with the Law of the Sea Treaty is that it does not divide up resources in a manner that reflects the power of countries in these region, and that is what has caused China to depart from the Treaty and insist on ad hoc negotiations with all the attendant risks. If governments lose control of the nationalism of their populations, all bets are off whether you are a realist or a legalist.