In any short list of global headaches, China’s quest for hegemony in the South China Sea ought to be up there with climate change, jihadis and the Ebola virus. It’s seemingly intractable, yet solving it has become the critical test of whether the international order can accomodate a ‘rising China.’
Notwithstanding the cautious instincts of a president who knows it is far easier to get into a foreign fight than to win one, the threat that Beijing’s tactics pose to vital American interests is drawing Washington ineluctably into a showdown with China. Until a few years ago, it was possible to see the South China Sea problem as a squabble among littoral countries over fish and seabed resources, exacerbated by a stiff dose of bloody-mindedness on China’s part. Now it is evident that China has no interest in negotiating territorial claims with its neighbors and only a selectively self-serving interest in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Washington has had to put dreams of global partnership with Asia’s emergent superpower on the shelf while it ponders China’s prospective control of vital sea lanes. The South China Sea is, in Bill Hayton’s words, “the first place where Chinese ambition has come face-to-face with American strategic resolve.”
It’s a confrontation that we need to understand, and Hayton, a BBC correspondent who’s done time in Myanmar and Vietnam, has provided the backstory. His thoroughly researched and gracefully written The South China Sea, subtitled the Struggle for Power in Asia, was published in the UK in late September and will be published in the US on October 28 by Yale Press. It is being offered on Amazon for US$28.
Hayton’s 320 page book will inevitably be compared with another recent volume on the same subject, Robert Kaplan’s Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. They are very different books. Kaplan tosses off glib generalizations about national character, national interests and Asian leaders’ purported obsession with order. It’s all about balance-of-power, Kaplan says, a contest played out “in this new and somewhat sterile landscape of the 21st century.” His Southeast Asia is a place where China is destined to sweep its erstwhile tributaries back into their proper orbits and where, if Washington is realistic in its analysis, it ought to graciously yield precedence to Beijing.
Hayton, on the other hand, explains. His opening chapters lead his readers almost effortlessly through the five thousand years that the South China Sea was a global commons dominated by proto-Malay voyagers. Then trading empires rise and fall: Funan, Champa, Majahapit and Malacca. Circa 1400, for the first and only time before the present era, China briefly becomes a sea power, sending great fleets to India and east Africa before again turning its attention inward. Europeans in search of spices, porcelain and silks arrive in the 1500’s. Spain establishes dominion over the Philippine archipelago; three centuries later, France in Indochina and England in the Malay states have carved out their own colonies and are forcing even China to kowtow to gunboat diplomacy.
The Europeans, intent on demarcating boundaries and establishing exclusive rights to territory, unwittingly lay the foundations of fervent, self-conscious nationalism in what become, by the middle of the 20th century, their ex-colonies and ex-concessions. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and China — both its Taiwan and Beijing governments — all now claim great and overlapping swaths of an expanse of water that in times past connected rather than divided their inhabitants. All have scrambled to plant their flags on the reefs, rocks and islets (collectively ‘features’) that dot the vast sea.
The rich tapestry Hayton weaves is fascinating in itself, but of signal importance is a thread he carefully pulls from it: China’s history-based claim to the sea area south of Hong Kong and Hainan Island is mostly rubbish. The Chinese evidence simply does not stand up against the annals of Vietnam’s Nguyen lords, who by 1750 or so were despatching annual expeditions to both the Spratly and Paracel Island groups. The Vietnamese went mainly to salvage shipwrecks, to be sure, but they left behind markers and kept careful records.
Ironically, the Vietnamese have ceased to harp on their own historic claim. They appeal instead to the rules governing the division of seas that are codified in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, which came into force in 1994. So do the Philippines and the Malaysians. International law is the refuge of smaller and weaker states. For strong states intent on undoing past humiliations, international law is often an inconvenient nuisance. The regime in Beijing may know its legal case is weak; it may rationalize that China would have dominated its nearby seas had it not been oppressed by the West and Japan. For China’s man in the street, the message is simple. Teachers and populist media have convinced him that Beijing’s sovereignty over the southern seas and islands is ‘immutable’ and ‘incontestable.’
Analysts — Hayton and this writer among their number — are hard put to explain why Beijing would so arrogantly squander the respect that until recently it worked so hard to gain. Hayton toys with the notion that naval commands, oil companies and provincial authorities have pursued aggressively independent foreign policies, dragging along top-level leaders who don’t want to seem weak. That argument hasn’t stood up in the Xi Jinping era; in recent years Chinese tactics have been impressively coordinated.
Other analysts blame the rising superpower’s raging thirst for oil and gas. There’s no doubt that China’s future growth depends on ample supplies of both. There’s considerable doubt, however, that the South China Sea is the “second Persian Gulf” often mentioned in Chinese media. Further, flush with foreign exchange, China has had no problem sourcing oil and gas outside the region, nor is it in anyone’s interest to interfere with that trade.
Western observers who haven’t done their homework have tended to see Chinese claims and ambitions as no less valid than all the others’. Kaplan goes further, treating international law as essentially irrelevant in the South China Sea disputes. And yet, the grandiosity of China’s territorial claims and the tactics it has employed in their pursuit are highly significant to the US and other states with a large stake in the maintenance of a peaceful, law-based, free-trading world order. They suggest that a “rising China” will play by the rules only when that suits its interests. That means, Hayton concludes, that this 1.35 million square mile expanse — the world’s largest ‘enclosed sea’ — “has become the place where incompatible Chinese and American identities are doomed to clash.”
With each passing year, the stakes grow higher. An unstable dynamic ineluctably is drawing in the US and its principal Asian ally, Japan, in support of Vietnam and the Philippines. China shows no sign of backing down. There is no happy ending in sight.
Postscript: Bill Hayton, ironically, is not welcome in Vietnam. He was the BBC’s resident correspondent in Hanoi in 2007-2008. Evidently his reporting at that time annoyed the authorities. When Hayton applied for a visa to participate in a November 2012 conference on East Sea issues sponsored by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, he was refused. Some months later, Hayton applied again, specifically asking to interview Vietnamese officials for his forthcoming book. Again he was refused. The result is that Hayton’s sections on Vietnam and the East Sea are relatively ‘thin’ — they lack the compelling detail that conversations with Vietnamese experts might have supplied. It’s a pity — and another story with (so far) no happy ending!
David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes on Southeast Asian topics with particular regard to contemporary Vietnam. He may be reached at email@example.com.