Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert Kaplan, Ballantine Books, RRP£12.99/Random House, RRP$26, 256 pages

Within a few generations, the world’s oceans will no longer be coloured blue. Instead, they will have been claimed by nation states and will be identified on maps according to the shades of the countries that own them. That is what Alexis Dudden, professor of history at the University of Connecticut, tells her students. It is a theory likely to be tested out most ardently in the South China Sea.

Robert Kaplan, a journalist and defence specialist, is strongly drawn to the subject of oceans. In Monsoon (2010), he argued that the 21st century would see the Indian Ocean reclaim its historic role as a vital maritime centre of power. In his latest book Asia’s Cauldron, he turns to the South China Sea, a waterway that he describes as being “as central to Asia as the Mediterr­anean is to Europe”.

The book is a muscular, deeply knowledgeable but slightly rambling account of competing claims to a sea that Kaplan calls, in his somewhat relentless prose, “the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce”. Part of the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea covers an area from Singapore and the Malacca Straits to Taiwan. It contains more than 200 small islands, rocks and coral reefs, about three dozen of which are permanently above water. These are subject to overlapping claims from China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Beijing lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea by virtue of what is known as the nine-dash line. The sea is fast becoming “the most contested body of water in the world”, the main arena for geopolitical competition between a rising China and a US that, Kaplan contends, is in relative (if not necessarily absolute) decline. “The old order of American military unipolarity in the waters of the western Pacific is slowly fading,” he writes.

Just as the US in the early 20th century managed to eject Europe from the Caribbean, China’s strategic aim must inevitably be to “exercise de facto hegemony over their own Asian Mediterranean”. Beijing should, he says, endeavour to achieve its strategic goal while maintaining cordial relations with Washington and tempering anxiety in southeast Asia.

Kaplan is an ultra-realist. One of the virtues of the book – though some will deem it a vice – is that it takes a non-moralistic stance on questions of power and diplomacy. In a chapter in which he describes China’s regime as exhibiting a “low-calorie version of authoritarianism”, he warns against demonising the Communist party or extrapolating too much from its domestic actions. Just because it is heavy-handed at home doesn’t mean that it is about to take over its near oceans by force. “Though China seeks dominance, do not assume it will be unreason­able …There is nothing unusually aggressive about anything China is doing.”

China’s actions, he contends, are a more or less inevitable consequence of its growing economic might. As it gets richer, it is bound to take more interest in policing the sea lanes through which its energy and industrial resources are transported. On current trends – and Kaplan warns repeatedly, and sensibly, against straight-line extrapolation – China will have as many submarines as the US navy by 2020. Even as it is, the US navy has shrunk from almost 600 ships in the Reagan era to under 300 today. Within not so many years, he predicts, China will be able to deny US forces unimpeded access to parts of the South China Sea.

Having laid out the argument neatly in the first few chapters, the book veers into a tour of the nations that border the sea under discussion. The chapter on Vietnam is strong because it draws out the historic antagonisms that underpin present frictions. Another, on the Philippines, highlights the near impossibility of a poor archipelago with a decrepit defence force – Kaplan comes close to calling it a failed state – being able to resist the rising power of China. The author deals in raw power, dismissing the Philippines’ appeal to international law in pursuit of its territorial claims as “the ultimate demonstration of weakness”.

Chapters on Singapore and Taiwan drift further from the central theme. The first gets bogged down in a discussion of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his Malaysian contemporary, Mahathir Mohamad, as enlightened autocrats. The second seeks to rescue Chiang Kai-shek’s reputation as a feckless general who “lost” China to Mao Zedong. These sections are not without interest but feel somewhat bolted on.

What is Kaplan’s conclusion? Must overlapping, intractable claims lead inevitably to war? Kaplan thinks not. He approvingly quotes John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who refers to the “stopping power of water”. The growth of navies is worrying, but less so than was the expansion of armies in continental Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The history of water need not be the same as the history of land.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor and author of ‘Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival’ (Allen Lane/Penguin Press)

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