Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific
By Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, 2014, 256 pp.
Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century
By James Steinberg and Michael O'Hanlon
Princeton University Press, 2014, 272 pp.
These two books ponder the changes taking place in the strategic environment of Asia and come to similar conclusions about how the United States should respond to them. Kaplan traveled around the rim of the South China Sea in an attempt to understand competition among the littoral states. Those countries value this body of water for its transportation routes, undersea oil, and fishery resources. And modern military technology has made the South China Sea vital to the security of the entire Asia-Pacific region: as technology has shrunk distances, China’s interests have conflicted with the other states in the area. Kaplan may overdramatize when he says that Chinese domination of the South China Sea would make it a “virtual hegemon” in a region that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, but he does not think this is the most likely outcome. Rather, he argues that balance-of-power politics might allow for a growing Chinese role without major conflict, albeit amid constant tension and friction. But this least worst scenario depends on a continued robust U.S. presence and on American technological superiority, both of which are perennially uncertain.
And how can the United States play a balancing role without triggering a hostile Chinese reaction? Steinberg and O’Hanlon suggest that a “sustainable equilibrium” can be achieved if Washington and Beijing both demonstrate that they do not seek to threaten each other’s core security interests. For example, the United States could refrain from creating long-range missile systems capable of attacking inland China and could design missile defense systems that would not undermine the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent. For Chinese policymakers, the authors recommend banning the use of anti-satellite weapons, giving advance notice to the United States before deploying military ships to the East China and South China seas, informally agreeing to cap Chinese spending on defense at around half the amount that the United States spends, and committing not to use force against Taiwan. But strategists in Beijing would likely interpret such proposals as asking China to accommodate an intrusive encirclement even as the country becomes more powerful. For its part, the United States would risk its credibility if it appeared to yield preemptively to Chinese ambitions. Still, neither side finds the alternative of escalating conflict particularly attractive.