Book Review By K. Joseph Spears

As Canada looks globally and increasingly towards new export markets in the Indo-Pacific Basin, Canadians need to understand about a pivotal body of water to global stability: the South China Sea. Canada’s and global future economic prosperity is linked to free and unlimited access to sea lanes. The issues in the region can be complex and difficult to unravel. This piece of ocean space seems to generate a new territorial or fishing dispute in the media on a daily basis. These waters figure prominently in strategic thinking about the global commons and its importance to future global trade and stability in the Indo-Pacific Basin where over half of the world’s population is found. Disputes in these waters are more than just which coastal state claims the hydrocarbon resources of the Continental shelf. These disputes have international and possible long-term ramifications.

American strategist, Asia watcher, and writer Richard Kaplan’s in his latest book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific ( March 25, 2014, Random House Canada) provides a good overview of the complex developing situation in the South China Sea and a historical overview of how these intertwined issues have developed. This includes China’s rise as an emerging sea power and China’s assertive claims to these waters. It is a short book, 256 pages, with a strong, clear, and hard hitting thesis about these multifaceted issues. (50 per cent of the world’s merchant fleet and 80 per cent of the oil consumed in China passes through these waters). The South China Sea has been called the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean where global sea routes converge.

Kaplan’s book provides a snapshot of how the present disputes have arisen with the insight and experience of someone who has travelled and studied in this region for a lifetime. Historical context is provided for China’s actions with a view to past rises of other sea powers such as the United States in the Caribbean at the turn of the 20th century. Mr. Kaplan believes that to understand “the future of conflict in East Asia, one must understand the goals and motivations of its leaders and its peoples.” This is the latest in a string of insightful books by Mr. Kaplan including The Revenge of Geography (2012), Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power ( 2010), and The Coming Anarchy (2000).

Kaplan’s insights need to be brought into Canadian economic thinking and policy. How is Canada going to position itself strategically with respect to these waters? These issues grow in significance to Canada given that its waterborne exports of commodities, energy exports and/or manufactured goods will have to transit these waters. The open and stable commons maintained by US military power has been a tremendous benefit to Asia’s rising economic powers which allowed for peaceful economic and political developments. As China increasingly becomes more aggressive in the region, this could have an impact on the free movement of goods by sea and have a larger and far reaching global economic impact than just simply impacting the coastal states around the region. This book should be read by all Canadians involved in the marine sector and those doing business in the region. Having an understanding of issues will help Canada policymakers and commercial interests develop a position based a clear understanding of factors that will impact Canada’s future trade opportunities. By 2030, eighty-five per cent of global energy consumption will occur in the Indo-Pacific region, and China may well boast the world’s largest economy.* Canada has a long history in the region in the development with many of the coastal states such as Vietnam and China. Robert Kaplan’s Asia Cauldron should in the every shipping firm’s library. The waters of the South China Sea lap at Canada’s economic future.


Robert Kaplan was a keynote speaker at the Royal Canadian Navy’s 2008 Maritime Security Conference (MSC2008) in Victoria, B.C. Joe Spears was the wrap-up Arctic speaker.