The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia is a discerning account of simmering conflict in the South China Sea and why the world can’t afford to be indifferent. 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.
To understand the importance of the South China Sea to the wider world, fly from Singapore’s Changi Airport on a clear day and, as you rise up, look down at the water below. Hundreds of vessels, from the smallest of fishing smacks to the very largest of crude carriers, fill the waterway: tugs, trawlers, container ships, cat transporters and bulk freighters shifting the stuff of modern life. Oil heading east fuels the giant economies at the other end of the South China Sea: Taiwan, South Korea, China and Japan. To the west flows the combined output of the workshops of the world: hardware and software, headwear and footwear. The best guesses suggest that more than half the world’s maritime trade goes through the Straits of Malacca, along with half the world’s liquefied natural gas and one-third of its crude oil. If the ships stopped moving, it wouldn’t be long before the lights in some parts of the world started going out.
The South China Sea is both the fulcrum of world trade and a crucible of conflict. There were battles in 1974 and 1988 and there have been dozens of less violent confrontations since. The United States has been involved since the beginning and India has begun to take an interest. The region deserves our attention and yet, outside a small circle of academics, paid experts and other obsessives, it is very poorly understood. Many of the accepted truths about the disputes, repeated in most media coverage, are either untrue or unproven. The Sea is not particularly rich in oil and gas resources, the military bases on the disputed islands are not particularly ‘strategic’ since almost all could be destroyed with a single missile strike, the territorial disputes involve six countries, not five, since Indonesia is affected although it pretends it isn’t and the ‘historic claims’ of the disputants are actually very modern.
Many of the key writings on the South China Sea—at least in English—can trace their original references back to two Western academic works: a 1976 paper by the German historian Dieter Heinzig, entitled ‘Disputed Islands in the South China Sea’, and a 1982 book by the American geographer Marwyn Samuels, Contest for the South China Sea. They were pioneering and impressive pieces of work, bringing much needed insight to the subject. But the histories that both books recounted relied in large part on articles published in Chinese Communist Party journals following the Chinese invasion of the Paracel Islands in January 1974. One was published in the March 1974 edition of The 70s Monthly (Ch’i-shi nien-tai yüeh-k’an) and two in the May 1974 edition of Ming Pao Monthly. These were clearly not neutral pieces of scholarship: they were intended to justify the invasion. Heinzig and Samuels are not to be blamed for this. There was little other material available at the time.
However, by relying on these early works (and the works that rely on these works), too many academics and commentators are still, in effect, allowing these three Chinese articles to frame the entire debate about the South China Sea, 40 years after they were published. Knowledge about the history and current situation of the Sea has proliferated since then, allowing researchers to re-examine the old certainties. Too much of this new material is lying unread in academic journals. The author hope that by bringing some of that work to wider attention, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia will make a contribution to changing the terms of the debate.
There is much more to the South China Sea than apparently Lilliputian squabbles over barren lumps of rock. Mysterious cultures have risen and fallen around its shores, invaders have come and gone, winds of trade and war have directly connected the Sea to the fates of faraway empires for centuries. Its history is also a global history. Its future should be a global concern. In our era, what happens in the South China Sea will define the future.
Will China’s rise lead to conflict between the superpowers? Does the Chinese leadership intend to play by the rules of the international game or challenge them? Does the United States have the will to stand its ground? Will the countries of Southeast Asia win or lose from superpower competition? How has the hunt for hydrocarbons affected the conflict? Above all, what an be done to prevent war ever breaking out? How could the resources of the Sea be equitably sharéd among the hundreds of millions of mostly poor people living around its shores? Read on.