THE rocks and coral known as James Shoal are not much: just a raised stretch of seabed 22 metres (72 feet) below the surface and 107km (67 miles) off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. Yet China, 1,500km to the north, regards it as the southernmost point of its territory, at the base of a vast U-shaped swathe of the South China Sea, demarcated by a “nine-dash line” on maps that now appear even in Chinese passports. To compound the apparent absurdity, the shoal’s inclusion on Chinese maps seems the result of a mistake by Chinese cartographers in the 1930s, who thought it was a land feature. But from such historical accidents and blunders has emerged an interlocking network of disputes in the South China Sea that poses one of the most serious threats to peace in Asia, and indeed to the American-led world order.
Bill Hayton’s splendid book lucidly covers these disputes in all their complexity from virtually every angle—historical, legal, political, economic and strategic. A journalist with the BBC and author of a previous book on Vietnam, he tells a good yarn, even when the topic is as dry as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Indeed, he may be the first person ever to have written an exciting account of a meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The book is nonetheless sobering, since it discerns no credible solution to the disputes. The Chinese nine-dash line is claimed also by Taiwan, as the descendant of the “Republic of China” whose mapmakers produced it. It sweeps through the “exclusive economic zones” asserted under UNCLOS by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines is challenging its legal validity. But even if it wins, UNCLOS cannot adjudicate on sovereignty over islands, rocks or shoals. And China will ignore it anyway.
Tiny islands and otherwise uninhabitable rocks dotting the sea have been turned into mini-fortresses to bolster territorial claims. China and Vietnam fought a bloody sea-battle in 1988 in the Spratly Islands, named after the captain of a British sailing barque who visited in the 1840s in the hope of filling her hold with whale oil. And earlier this year a different sort of oil provoked water-cannon skirmishes and boat-rammings, when a Chinese rig drilled in waters near another set of islands claimed by Vietnam, the Paracels.
Yet it may not be resources that are fuelling dissension. Mr Hayton reports that oil-industry experts are sceptical of claims that the sea’s hydrocarbon reserves will make it “the next Persian Gulf”. Most of the recoverable oil and gas reserves are under undisputed waters in any case. And the sea’s once fabulous fish stocks are, in the absence of any mechanism to manage them, frighteningly depleted.
What makes the disputes so dangerous is a toxic mix of domestic and international politics. In China the nine-dash line has been elevated into a nationalist symbol of the country’s efforts to overturn the humiliations it suffered at foreign hands in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But in Vietnam, for example, about which Mr Hayton writes with particular perceptiveness, the government faces pressure from critics eager to seize on any instance of “softness” towards China. Criticism of China has become a proxy for criticism of Vietnam’s own ruling Communists.
Most alarming is the fact that the sea has become the theatre for a battle of nerves between China and America. China believes America is encouraging the littoral states to stand up to it over its territorial claims, and bitterly resents America’s insistence that it has the right to send its spy ships to the edge of China’s territorial waters, 22km off its coast. American power depends on the freedom of navigation, both for its navy and for commercial traffic through the sea. The South China Sea has become the test of America’s strategic “rebalancing” towards Asia and of its willingness to protect its friends and allies from Chinese bullying. As Mr Hayton sombrely notes: “The logic is towards conflict.”
The author adds, however, that in the final stage of his research he changed his mind. When Mr Hayton began working on his book, he believed that some kind of conflict over the sea was imminent. He subsequently became convinced that Chinese leaders understand they would lose a shooting war and are desperate to avoid it, using instead what they call “the period of strategic opportunity” to build up China’s strength. Since they know the other side must grasp this, however, they have to appear belligerent. This is an intriguing argument. But this strategy is so vulnerable to miscalculation, misperception and sheer bad luck, that it is not a very reassuring one.
China’s rise has upset the global balance of power, and the first place to feel the strain is Beijing’s back yard: the South China Sea. For decades tensions have smoldered in the region, but today the threat of a direct confrontation among superpowers grows ever more likely. This important book is the first to make clear sense of the South Sea disputes. Bill Hayton, a journalist with extensive experience in the region, examines the high stakes involved for rival nations that include Vietnam, India, Taiwan, the Philippines, and China, as well as the United States, Russia, and others. Hayton also lays out the daunting obstacles that stand in the way of peaceful resolution.
Through lively stories of individuals who have shaped current conflicts—businessmen, scientists, shippers, archaeologists, soldiers, diplomats, and more—Hayton makes understandable the complex history and contemporary reality of the South China Sea. He underscores its crucial importance as the passageway for half the world’s merchant shipping and one-third of its oil and gas. Whoever controls these waters controls the access between Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific. The author critiques various claims and positions (that China has historic claim to the Sea, for example), overturns conventional wisdoms (such as America’s overblown fears of China’s nationalism and military resurgence), and outlines what the future may hold for this clamorous region of international rivalry.
Bill Hayton is a longtime reporter with BBC News, specializing in contemporary Asia. He has also written for the Times, Financial Times, and Bangkok Post. He lives in Colchester, UK.