By Chet Yarbrough
By Robert D. Kaplan
Narrated by: Michael Prichard
Balance of power is the overriding theme of Robert Kaplan’s book, Asia’s Cauldron. Kaplan’s view of the world is consistent (read The Revenge of Geography) but the principal of balance of power seems confused with military strength that is more relevant in history than in the modern world. With China replacing the former U.S.S.R., Kaplan seems determined to recreate an arms race.
The weakness of Kaplan’s argument for a balance of power is that power is narrowly defined as military capability. Information is power in the 21st century; military prowess is supplemental rather than primary in any hegemonic’ race for supremacy.
Kaplan argues that China will subsume the Asian continent and archipelago with naval expansion in the South China Sea unless America maintains a balancing naval force in the region. He acknowledges that the present American navy is superior to China’s but believes that without a coalition of Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Japanese, Taiwanese, and American naval power, China will eventually control the South China Sea. Kaplan believes South China Sea’ control is tantamount to domination of Asia.
Kaplan’s error is evident in America’s loss of control of Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. These countries have chosen their own way despite America’s hegemonic control of the Caribbean. Why conclude Asian’ countries will not choose their own way when China has hegemonic control of the South China Sea?
Kaplan persuasively argues that countries have become great nations with autocratic as well as democratic leaders. In both autocratic and democratic countries there have been levels of corruption, greed, and unfair rule that sacrifice freedom, but those countries that tended toward improved economic condition for lower and middle classes eventually stabilize to become world powers. Countries that ignore lower and middle class improvement decline, regardless of autocratic or democratic rule. Kaplan gives the example of the Philippines as a country that fails because it is ruled by a corrupt President (Marcos) that ignores the middle and lower classes. The Philippines is a country of the very rich and poor, a vassal of American largess rather than an independent powerful nation. Kaplan suggests a counterpoint is South Korea that had a series of corrupt, autocratic Presidents but a rising middle class. South Korea is now a prosperous and powerful independent nation.
However, Kaplan seems to fall into a trap of mistrust with China. One may be skeptical without being mistrustful. As Kaplan notes, China has hugely improved the economic condition of its lower and middle classes. China is certainly not a democracy but it is heading toward the same domestic crises that plague the United States; i.e. the widening gap between rich and poor, and greed and corruption that comes from the nature of humankind. Even Kaplan suggests that China’s expanded navy may be moot if China is unable to meet economic needs/expectations of its vast population.
Focusing on an arms race because of concern over naval supremacy in the South China Sea is a waste of public dollars that should be spent addressing the needs of a rising middle class; not to mention, regulation of human’ greed and corruption. China seems to recognize the importance of regulation in their recent anti-corruption crack down; i.e. America should invest in information about China’s expanding middle class and how their success or failure may translate to American’ solution to a pending crises.