Inevitable Conflict in the South China Sea?


Robert D. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (Random House, 2014).


The strategic board game “Diplomacy” was created six decades ago.  In the now-classic version of the game, each player is a country in pre-World War I Europe with a pre-determined number of supply centers, competing against other players for several more centers in neutral territories.  The goal is to control the majority of neutral or state-controlled supply centers.  The game has no dice and military units are moved strictly through diplomacy and guile.  Each game is different because of the varied strategic capabilities and personalities of the players.  Some players are more cautious, some more aggressive.  The better players will form non-aggression pacts or alliances early in the game only to turn on their partners later.

Game alliances can be formed.  Some are temporary and some are permanent. Promises are made, promises are broken, and greed is always at the heart of the game; greed for more supply centers, more territory, more resources, and greater military capability.  Perhaps these are reasons why “Diplomacy” was reportedly a favorite of both Henry Kissinger and John F. Kennedy.

But at the heart of Diplomacy is the map – its geography.    A player like Russia begins with more supply centers, but the enlarged territory forces them to defend nearly a third of the map against up to five players.  The neutral supply centers of the Balkans are quickly absorbed and fought over by three or more competing powers.  England, by virtue of its geography, primarily builds fleets until it has a foothold on the continent.  The player who recognizes the advantages and challenges of his own geography, and his opponents’, will be more successful.

It is difficult not to think about this game as one reads Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book, Asia’s Cauldron.  Following on his last two books, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power and The Revenge of Geography, Kaplan understands the heart of the game on a regional and global scale: the relevance of geography and the unique personalities of those who play the game.  In the game of Diplomacy, state armies are posed to face one another at the threat of their own territories while fleets generally play supporting operational roles.  Armies retreat or are destroyed. Kaplan argues that the South China Sea is slightly different. “Unless shelling on shore is involved,” he writes,” the dead are usually all in naval uniform, and thus there are no victims per se.”

He is correct.  Naval incidents don’t always lead immediately to war.  When the British warship HMS Leopard fired upon and forced the USS Chesapeake to surrender in 1807, for example, the US did not declare war on the British.  Attacks on the USS Water-witch in 1855 by Paraguay and the USS Panay in 1937 by Japan, and the capture of USS Pueblo by North Korea in 1968 likewise did not immediately lead to war.   In the modern era, Exocet missiles striking the USS Stark in 1987, the USS Samuel B. Roberts hitting the Iranian-laid mine in 1988 and the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000 did not lead to immediate conflict with Iraq, Iran or Al-Qaeda respectively.  Americans will generally accept the risk to naval forces operating overseas; it is when American territory is attacked that they will respond, such as with Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 or September 11 in New York and Washington.

Although they don’t always lead to a war or expanded military conflict, as tensions rise, maritime incidents – like those above – do occur and sometimes (like the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964) expand military operations.   But if there is any place in the world that the risk for maritime conflict is greatest, it is in the South China Sea.  Like in the game of “Diplomacy,” the region’s geography of competing resources is incentivizing the construction of larger regional navies.  Arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, Kaplan notes, have gone up by 84 percent, 146 percent, and 722 percent respectively since 2000.  And plenty of other sources discuss China’s massive spending in the past decade to build a fleet, which has demonstrated its own operational capability with its succession of flotillas deployed to the Horn of Africa to protect ships from Somali pirates.  China is also testing its first aircraft carrier.  And, as Kaplan points out, China has been outbuilding the United States in new submarines by four to one since 2000 and eight to one since 2005.  This regional arms build-up is particularly significant in light of the ebbing maritime capabilities of the old European colonial powers, which are barely spending two percent of their Gross Domestic Product on their militaries.  The United Kingdom, for example, would likely not be able to conduct another Falklands operation as it did in 1982.  In addition, if the Scottish vote for independence succeeds, the Royal Navy’s sole submarine base in Faslane, Scotland would likely be unavailable for basing. Might the Royal Navy increasingly find itself unable to fund or man its two aircraft carriers currently under construction or its escort ships?

Geography also dictates strategic maritime chokepoints and shipping lanes. Kaplan recognizes that “more than half of the world’s annual fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide.”  These shipping lanes are the conduit for the majority of energy supplies for South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China – all transiting the South China Sea.

Even more germane than the international shipping lanes are the islands – if one can truly call some of them islands, since some are simply partially submerged reefs – in the South China Sea.  In “Diplomacy,” a power must own a supply center to control a territory and maneuver to adjacent territories.  Likewise, countries adjacent to the South China Sea have laid claim to these spots of land to extend the range of their claims of sovereignty to adjacent waters.  These territories are vital, particularly if a country exploits resources, such as oil and gas, that may be under those waters.   Many of these geographical features are in dispute.  The question is, will these disputes lead to simple maritime incidents or to greater conflicts?

Readers of Kaplan’s previous works will likely be familiar with the author’s various hats: Kaplan the Strategist, Kaplan the Traveler, Kaplan the Historian, Kaplan the Interviewer, Kaplan the Journalist.  For readers new to his work, he is no back room writer browsing the internet for information.  With his wonderfully descriptive writing style, readers will easily imagine themselves walking down a street in Kuala Lumpur, sitting in the offices of foreign officials, or gazing at artifacts in the galleries of state museums.  Kaplan’s ability to synthesize these various aspects of his study guides the reader through the complexities of the various regional players, their histories, and of course, the realities of their advantages and disadvantages, such as governmental ineptitude and corruption in some cases versus models of efficiency and economy represented by others.

One nation that is not part of this geography is the nevertheless ever-present United States.  Given its own history in the Philippines at the turn of the last century, its operations in China and against Japan during the Second World War, a lengthy war in Vietnam and, of course, a watchful eye on a rising peer-competitor, Kaplan recognizes that Americans’ imperial fatigue after two lengthy conflicts makes it less likely that they would support another major operation in the near future (witness Russia’s recent unopposed activity in the Ukraine).  Kaplan suggests that, rather than engage in hegemonic dominance of the South China Sea, the United States’ aim should be one of balance.

This brings us back to the lessons from games.  In the 1983 movie “WarGames,” a Department of Defense computer run amok is about to bring the world into a nuclear conflict. At the last minute, it is taught through the lesson of tic-tac-toe that its own war game of “Global Thermonuclear War” is strange.  The computer tells its creator that “the only winning move is not to play.”  That is the wrong lesson particularly for America in the region of the South China Sea.  That is why Diplomacy offers America’s best lesson in understanding the players, engaging with each of them, and most importantly, recognizing the geography as it develops a long-term strategy.

With Asia’s Cauldron, Kaplan again offers readers a clear view into a complex region. Policymakers, diplomats and military leaders, businesses, and students of foreign policy would be wise to read this book.


Claude Berube teaches naval history at the United States Naval Academy where also taught courses on national security, emergent naval warfare, terrorism and American government.  An officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, he served with Expeditionary Strike Group Five in 2004-2005.  He is the author or co-author of several books including Maritime Private Security and his debut novel, The Aden Effect (Naval Institute Press, 2012).


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