The South China Sea: A Review by Lyric Hughes Hale

The South China Sea is a marginal sea in geographical terms, but due both to its history and present role in trade and commerce, it will play a key role in defining the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world – that of China and the US.

It has been impossible to ignore the rapid rise of China as a global superpower in recent years. It has flourished both economically and politically, causing undeniable tensions to arise between China, its neighbours in Asia, Russia and the United States. There is one region in particular that plays a key role in the future of these relationships – the South China Sea. 

In the first book to clarify the South China Sea disputes, journalist Bill Hayton makes the complex history and contemporary reality of this long-standing conflict accessible to any reader. The outcome of the disputes will be vital in determining a new balance between global powers – yet all too often this topic is only superficially discussed and understood.

In an exclusive review of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, economics commentator and regular contributor to the Yale blog, Lyric Hughes Hale, delves into the current state of affairs in China and what the debate around the South China Sea means for the rest of the world. 

The South China Sea

A Marginal Sea – By Lyric Hughes Hale

30 June 2015

There has not been a war between major powers since World War II. What we do not appreciate is that in spite of current conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, we are actually enjoying an extended period of peace that is unprecedented. A stunning visualization of these facts and figures by Neil Halloran The Fallen of World War II underscores our current great good fortune, not seen since the days of the Roman Empire.

The red bars indicate the number of fatalities for each year of World War II, a total of 70 million people worldwide. The steep decline since that time is perhaps a dividend of the dawn of the nuclear age that forced state actors to remain rational.

I bring this up in connection with the current tensions in the South China Sea, because I am worried about a sense of inevitability setting in, an easy fatalism that allows us to think that war between great powers such as China and the US are unavoidable, and that this will make us careless and unaccountable. Bonnie Glaser at the Council on Foreign Relations warns “Strategic warning signals that indicate heightened risk of conflict include political decisions and statements by senior officials, official and unofficial media reports, and logistical changes and equipment modifications”. She recommends several courses of action, including the ratification by the US of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – I was surprised to hear hadn’t already happened. The failure to join in this type of multinational framework does unfortunately make the US appear as if it wants to play by its own rules, in this case because we do not agree about the oversight of seabed mineral rights.

China is also failing to engage multilaterally. This month the UN Tribunal in The Hague will hear arguments from the Philippines about their territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has decided against participating in the arbitration process. This is a shame, because the Tribunal’s decision will likely be a landmark in the history of the law of the sea. Whatever the outcome, discussions about Zhou Enlai’s 9-dashed line that delineates China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea will certainly be at the fore when the Philippines hosts APEC this coming November. Since the US has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, the US will be involved in the outcome.

As you can see from this map, the task of untangling a knot of nautical boundaries, Exclusive Economic Zones, agreed boundaries and China’s 9-dashed lines might seem an impossible task. However, Bill Hayton’s pithy, erudite, and intense account, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia is up to the task. Although a journalist himself, Hayton sails past the usual media drumbeats and simplifications, beginning with the surprising history of this marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean. I found it amusing to learn that actually this sea that is now the tug toy of large nations has islands that were originally inhabited by ancient peoples who wished to escape the clutches of the state. Hayton describes the archeology behind the claim that the original islanders were stateless, followed by India’s growing influence in the region before the colonial powers came to Asia. A Hindu-based system of government prevailed, with very fuzzy borders:

Kingdoms referred to themselves by the Sanskrit term mandala-wheel- and the rulers as cakravartin-wheel turner. They saw themselves as centres of networks, rather than states with defined borders. Their legitimacy came less from physical control over territory and more from recognition by other rulers.

The importance of the South China Sea to global trade from ancient times to currently $5.3 trillion per annum, including half the world’s oil, is beyond dispute. What is new is the idea of building new islands where they did not exist. But according to Hayton, the Chinese have actually been building artificial land features since at least 1987, when scientific expeditions were encouraged.

Fiery Cross Reef would not have been anyone’s first choice for a research station. At high water it was almost entirely submerged, except for a single meter-high rock at its southwestern end. The rest was composed of a ring of sharp coral, 25 kilometers long and 7 kilometers wide. The main reason it wasn’t already occupied was that there was almost nothing there to occupy. But that did not deter Liu’s (Admiral Liu Huaqing) navy. On 21 January 1988 four Chinese ships arrived with engineers and construction materials and set about creating something that could resemble dry land.

The Vietnamese acted on this incursion into the Spratly Islands by China. It did not end well – and a number of Vietnamese were killed, as Hayton mentions the engagement is shown in this official Chinese video. Hayton explains at least part of the Chinese impetus behind these territorial claims, the history of its invasion by Europe. “The main reason for the sensitivity about borders and sovereignty in the region is, of course, the experience of China during the period its ideologues call the century of humiliation”. His telling of the history of the region creates a layered understanding of current conflicts and the potential for a larger war.

The South China Sea ends with an endearing admission by the author-his conclusion differed from what he set out to prove.

I started writing this book because I believed, like many other people, that some kind of conflict in or around the South China Sea was imminent. In the very last phase of my research I changed my mind. I became convinced that the Chinese leadership understands that it can only lose from a shooting war, although it views everything short of war as a useful policy tool. I expect that, from time to time over the coming decades, low-level confrontation will escalate into periods of diplomatic and military crisis and perhaps even superpower confrontation.

The South China Sea is a marginal sea in geographical terms, but due both to its history and present role in trade and commerce, it will play a key role in defining the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world – that of China and the United States.

Lyric Hale CroppedLyric Hughes Hale is a writer and economic commentator. She is editor-in-chief of EconVue and author of What’s Next?: Unconventional Wisdom on the Future of the World Economy, published by Yale.

You can find more reviews by Lyric Hughes Hale here.

For more on the South China Sea, watch a video of Bill Hayton here:

Featured image Mui Ne, Vietnam, 10 January 2008.

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