Why China does what it does on the internation stage is often a mystery to us outside China. Many books I’ve read attempt answer that question by looking at China’s internals – the players, power structures, zeitgeist, etc. In Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific Robert D. Kaplan takes another approach.
By looking purely at the history, politics, and economics of the countries bordering the South China Sea I’ve found Kaplan offers a compelling narrative explaining the modern actions of China and many of the other countries in the region. Simply reviewing the modern history of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Phillipines, China, and Taiwan explains many of the most basic biases of the region.
The most interesting and novel story Kaplan stresses in this book is the incredible impact Singapore and it’s legendary leader Lee Kuan Yew (Harry Lee) has had on the region. Leading Singapore for forty years starting in 1959 (and “advising” the president from 1990-2015) Lee lead Singapore from it’s beginning as colony of England through Independence and all of the incredible challenges of the latter half of the twentieth century, eventually crafting an economic and cultural powerhouse. The most fascinating and – to freedom loving westerners confounding aspect of a Lee Kuan Yew Singapore is that this wealthy, powerful, safe, and vibrant city-state is based on his strict authoritarian rule. Many of the neighboring countries such as China have called out Singapore’s government as their model for a functional authoritarian state.
If nothing else this book is worth reading for it’s fascinating introduction to Lee Kuan Yew.