The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia
Yale University Press, 2014, 320 pp., $35
On a map, they are little more than specks. The Spratlys, the Johnsons, the Paracels, and the ominously named Mischief Reef. Scattered around the South China Sea (that name is the subject of dispute) most are so small they hardly deserve to be called islands. Some of them are just outcrops of rock or coral, even shoals that are submerged at high tide.
But shooting wars have started over less, says Bill Hayton, a BBC journalist who specializes in Asian issues. In this lucid, authoritative book he examines the issues of law and commerce, nationalistic pride and geopolitical strategy that intersect on this piece of ocean, with China in the north, Vietnam in the west, the Philippines in the east, and a number of interested parties watching from the sidelines. Mischief, indeed.
The key player in the arena is China, which has laid claim to the whole area on the grounds of ownership “since ancient times.” It points to some shipwrecks and mentions of the area on early maps, but it is hard to accept that these constitute grounds for ownership. Hayton notes that during its imperial history China was not a particularly significant naval power and showed little interest in the area. Yes, there were Chinese traders and occasional freelance explorers, but other countries can say similar things. There was even a colorful entrepreneur from the Philippines named Tomas Cloma who once tried to claim several islands in a plan to set up an archipelagic mini-state of his own.
In fact, the earliest references to many of the area’s features appeared on French and English maps. (Spratly was a British captain who described the islands that would be named for him as a shipping hazard.) By the middle of the 18th century, Vietnam’s Nguyen lords were sending expeditions to the Spratlys and Paracels and keeping careful records.
In comparison, the first Chinese document that might amount to a legal claim that Hayton can locate dates from 1935, when a Chinese government committee gave Chinese names to the islands. The first time that any Chinese official set foot on any of the Spratly Islands was in 1946. But all this was done by the Nationalist government, and the records are still held in Taiwan. Interestingly, the Taipei government also claims the South China Sea, as the descendant of the “Republic of China.”
Nevertheless, the historic claim has somehow become fixed in Beijing’s thinking, and for decades official maps have shown a nine-dash U-shaped line that takes in the whole area as part of Chinese territory, encroaching on waters claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
Understandably, none of these countries accept China’s claim, noting the distance from the Chinese mainland. Over the years, there has been a series of confrontations, usually starting with trawlers but drawing in naval forces. Shots have been fired and some lives lost: China and Vietnam fought a bloody skirmish in 1988 in the Spratlys. But so far there has been no escalation, aside from exchanges of diplomatic protests.
Instead, the main players are trying to buttress their claims by occupying as much ground as they can hold. Vietnam has placed settlements on some of the islands on its side of the area, and the Philippines has aggressively asserted its fishing rights. China has gone even further, dredging up material from the sea floor to expand several outcrops into habitable platforms. In one area, it insists on dropping markers onto a shoal that is permanently submerged. It would be funny if not for the potentially serious ramifications.
Hayton makes the point that there is not much of value in the area. There has been a trickle of speculation about oil and gas reserves, and several countries have issued exploration licences over areas they claim to control. So far they have found little worthy of development, but this has done nothing to defuse the tensions.
Especially for China, the claim seems to be an end in itself: that is, the assertion of sovereignty. Given that a large part of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party rests on its opposition to imperialism, controlling an area previously associated with foreign powers makes sense. And there is a labyrinth of old quarrels in the region, all of which add to the general atmosphere of distrust. Seen from this perspective, the South China Sea conflict looks like a part of a much larger historical picture. It might seem odd that the Chinese government is basing its claim on events from the imperial and Nationalist periods, both of which it has repudiated in a myriad of ways, but from Beijing’s perspective there is no contradiction. Indeed, the matter is beyond dispute. It is “official” history, not necessarily connected to the truth.
The other battlefield is the courtroom. Hayton notes that Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have largely dropped their own historic claims and are instead appealing to the rules governing the division of seas. These are codified in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, which came into force in 1994. This would seem to be a useful avenue for them to claim at least part of the area, and the Philippine government has launched a case against China. A decision could come out as early as the end of this year, but China is unlikely to accept any ruling that would deprive it of territory. Its response to an unfavorable finding would probably be: so what? The bottom line is that UNCLOS doesn’t have any battleships—and neither do any of the ASEAN states. If push ever came to shove, it would be clear that China’s naval power is greater than all of theirs put together.
Like it or not, says Hayton, the United States is a player in the conflict. The essential U.S. position is that the South China Sea must remain open to shipping, and that no country can make sovereign claims that might endanger free trade. Successive presidents have sent the Pacific Fleet through the area as an assertion of American views, and have been dismissive of the U-shaped line and what it implies.
Does this mean that the region is likely to become the arena for a shooting match between the superpowers? Hayton notes that he started writing the book with the thesis that conflict was inevitable, but he is brave enough to admit that ultimately he changed his mind. He came to the conclusion that the hard-headed men in Beijing realize that they would lose a military conflict, and therefore are desperate to avoid it. But they are equally resolved to maintain their claim. In China there is strong domestic support for asserting sovereignty, which often outpaces strategic caution (the same is true for the other Asian countries, to a lesser or greater degree).
This raises the possibility that a military confrontation would happen not as a matter of policy but through a series of escalating missteps. The South China Sea could become, to use Hayton’s words, “the place where Chinese ambition comes face-to-face with American strategic resolve.” A slippery slope, then, would be the path to war.
The conflict has gathered momentum in recent months. In March, the Philippine military released aerial photographs showing several new Chinese facilities under construction on the Johnson North and Johnson South reefs. China has developed about 80,000 square meters through dredging, enough to provide for a substantial upgrade of the existing building. Other photographs showed something that looks very much like an airstrip being constructed on reclaimed land at Fiery Cross Reef, and expanding developments on Mischief and Subi reefs.
One way or another, there does not seem much prospect of a happy or quiet ending to the South China Sea story. The details might be hard to discern, but open conflict—either by accident or design—looks more likely than not. Perhaps not this year or next, but one day. Whether the United States is prepared to confront the fallout, however, remains an open question.