Sunday, August 3, 2014

Is Singapore the Israel in 'Asia's Cauldron'?

Review by Bill Doughty
In "Asia's Cauldron" Robert D. Kaplan combines insights from his "Monsoon" and "The Revenge of Geography" and shows where the future is unfolding, per his subtitle: "The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific."

Kaplan gives us a priceless short history of the region. He describes the landscape and maritime environment in the context of global power politics as he draws parallels – for example, between Singapore, a key ally in the region, and Israel; both nations were created in the past century. In the case of the more ethnically diverse Singapore:
"It was thrown out of a Malay-dominated federation in the 1960s because Singapore's leaders insisted on a multiethnic meritocracy. Thus, Singapore found itself alone amid a newly constituted and hostile Malaysia, which controlled Singapore's access to freshwater, while a pro-communist Indonesian demographic behemoth was breathing down Singapore's neck. Singapore was as small and alone in its region as Israel was in its; it was no irony that Israel played a large role in training Singapore's armed forces."
"While Singapore has only 3.3 million citizens, it boasts an air force the same size as Australia's, whose population is 23 million. 'Like the Israelis, the Singaporeans believe in air superiority. They pay their pilots well. they have AWACS,' a defense official from a neighboring country told me. In addition to its one hundred or so fighter jets, Singapore has twenty missile-carrying ships, six frigates, and, notably, six submarines – an extraordinary number given that far more populous countries in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam have fewer."
PEARL HARBOR (June 24, 2014) Republic of Singapore frigate RSS Intrepid (F 69) moors to the pier at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2014 exercise, which concluded Aug. 1. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tiarra Fulgham/Unreleased)

Other countries get the Israel comparison treatment, too, including Taiwan, which Kaplan says has survived because of "feverish, innovative diplomacy":  "More isolated than the Israelis, the Taiwanese were less bitter about it. No one in Taipei had chips on their shoulder. It was a place you instantly liked."

Kaplan finds other parallels with people and geography. The Caribbean of previous centuries is compared with the South China Sea, and "the South China Sea is the Mitteleuropa (German for Central Europe) of the twenty-first century." Kaplan describes the years leading up to World War I when Kaiser Wilhelm II built up his navy as President Theodore Roosevelt was anxious to prevent "a strong Germany from replacing a weak Spain" near United States shores. Strategic thinking and naval advances led to the creation of the Panama Canal, which opened one hundred years ago this month, Aug. 15, 2014.

Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Parallels and predictions are fraught with imperfections as history rhymes rather than repeats. Sometimes rhymes are beautiful sonnets, other times limericks.

"Future predictions are obviously dangerous because of the flaw of linear thinking: current trends rarely continue as they have in the past," Kaplan acknowledges.
Statue of Adm. Koxinga in Tainan, Taiwan
Reading Kaplan is like reading the best excerpts from the best books in the stacks of the best libraries. His bibliography weaves in such diverse sources as Aristotle, Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli, John Stuart Mill, Lee Kuan Yew, Barbara Tuchman, University of Hawaii historian Leonard Andaya, Joseph Conrad, Steven Pinker, Mingjiang Li and Jonathan Fenby.

Some interesting insights from "Asia's Cauldron," in random order:
  • Seventy percent of modern Taiwanese are part aboriginal, "Malay in origin."
  • The last three chiefs of the Malaysian Navy are graduates of the U.S. Naval War College.
  • Early Chinese explorer Cheng Kung, or Adm. Koxinga (feted in both mainland China and Taiwan) had a Japanese mother.
  • According to Kaplan: "After Singapore, postnational Malaysia, with all of its Islamic pretensions, is America's most reliable – albeit quietest – ally around the South China Sea (though Vietnam may soon surpass Malaysia in this regard)."
  • On Eastern and Western views: "The Western – and particularly the American – tendency is to be suspicious of power and central authority; whereas the Asian tendency is to worry about disorder."
  • Indo-Asia-Pacific: By 2050, seven of nine billion people in the world will live in Asia, the Middle East and East Africa.
  • The Philippines has an "aesthetic of material devastation" brought on, in part, according the Kaplan, by America's colonial blunder and Spain's colonization via Mexico in the Philippines.
Martial law declared Sept. 21, 1972.
The Philippines stands in in sharp contrast to the Asian tigers like Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, Kaplan says. The culture of corruption, bureaucracy and inequality in the distribution of wealth is a legacy perpetuated by former President Ferdinand Marcos and his First Lady Imelda Marcos.

American occupation of the Philippines that ended just over 100 years ago was seen as a "model of enlightenment," as Kaplan quotes Stanley Karnow, author of "In our Image."  Kaplan writes:
"The Philippines, in turn, affected the destiny of twentieth-century America to a degree that few faraway countries have. Ohio judge William Howard Taft's leadership of the Philippine Commission propelled him to the presidency of the United States. Army Captain John 'Black Jack' Pershing, who would head the expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico and command American forces in World War I, was promoted to brigadier general over nine hundred other officers after his stellar performance in leading troops against Islamic insurgents in the southern Philippines. Douglas MacArthur, son of Army General Arthur MacArthur, came to the Philippines to command an American brigade and returned for a second tour of duty as the indigenous government's military advisor. One of Douglas MacArthur's aides in Manila was a middle-aged major, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who honed his analytical skills for World War II by attempting to organize a Philippine national army. The Japanese victory over General Douglas MacArthur's forces on the Philippines, MacArthur's last stand on Corregidor in Manila Bay before retreating to Australia, the subsequent Japanese atrocities committed against both American and Filipino prisoners of war during the Death March on the nearby Bataan Peninsula, and MacArthur's triumphal return to the Philippines in the battle of Leyte Gulf, all became part of the Homeric legend of World War II that bound Americans to their military, and gave the American and Filipino people's a common historical inheritance."
Gen. MacArthur inspects the beachhead at Leyte Gulf, Oct. 24, 1944.
The Philippines remains crucial, he says, in large part because of its location and potential. "And yet, despite a century's worth of vast annual outlays of American aid, the Philippines has remained among the most corrupt, dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken societies in maritime Asia, with Africa-like slums and Latin America-style fatalism and class divides." Kaplan makes no Israel comparisons with the Republic of the Philippines, instead raising the risk of the Philippines becoming "Finlandized" by China.

Read "Asia's Cauldron" to see Kaplan's recommendation for a nuanced approach to the region, to interaction with China and to debates about contested islands, rocks and shoals in the Pratas, Paracels and Spratleys. This book shows how the U.S. Navy is viewed by key nations throughout the region who are embracing capitalism and seeing the benefits of freedom, critical thinking, and cooperation.
A case for optimism in a world where history rhymes rather than repeats: "The sea, unlike land, creates clearly defined borders, and thus has the potential to reduce conflict ... It is because of the seas around East Asia that the twenty-first century has a better chance than the twentieth of avoiding great military conflagrations."

LUMUT, Malaysia (June 18, 2014) A sailor from the Royal Malaysian Navy shakes hands with a Sailor from the guided-missile destroyer USS Pinckney (DDG 91) after playing the Malasian game takraw. Pinckney participated in exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2014. 
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist First Class Tim Miller/Released)

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