Friday, December 30, 2016

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in AsiaThe South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia by Bill Hayton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bill Hayton has written an important book about a world hotspot that receives far too little attention in the United States and Europe now obsessed with Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis and the mess in the Middle East. In the meantime, the South China Sea region continues to grow importance as a global economic powerhouse, while tensions mount between the increasingly aggressive China and its neighbors. The importance of South China Sea goes far beyond the region. For example, US$5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (Armed Clash in the South China Sea). Of this, U.S. trade accounts for US1.2 trillion. According to security expert Robert D. Kaplan, almost 60% of Japan’s and Taiwan’s and 80% of China’s crude oil imports are also transported through the relatively narrow sea lanes in the region. As China flexes its political and military muscles in order to secure the mineral and other resources in the South China Sea to itself, it is imperative for the rest of the world to ensure that the international waters in the area remain open for navigation. Hence the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State.

South China Sea directly borders a large number countries, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). In addition, countries like Japan have an important stake in the sea. As a semi-enclosed sea, there is considerable scope for overlapping claims for territorial waters in the area. China has unilaterally established a “nine-dashed line” – known as the “cow’s tongue” – that usurps most of South China Sea to the big brother in the region. In 2009, the Chinese government attached a map of this “U-shaped line” to its submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. At stake are island groups, such as the Paracels (claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam) and the Spratly Islands (disputed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam), and their presumed resources, from oil and minerals to fishing. In 2013, the Philippines brought the case under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the International Court of Justice, which in June 2016 ruled in the Philippines’ favor on seven of the aspects in the case (stating that in other seven submissions it was not able to provide a ruling). Needless to say, China has not accepted the ruling. Hayton in his book gives extensive background to the disputes and China’s attempts to use both the notion of territorial waters under UNCLOS as well as historical arguments to justify its claims to most of the sea area.

In the first lengthy chapter, ‘Wrecks and Wrongs: Prehistory to 1500’, Hayton provides a comprehensive historical overview of the waxing and waning empires – including the Champa, Angkor and Srivijaya – in the South China Sea area and the importance of the Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network (using the term coined by the archeologist Wilhem Solheim). This analysis convincingly refutes the notion of any single nation having unique historical claims to the sea. In the following chapter, ‘Maps and Lines: 1500 to 1948’, the book moves on to the era when the European colonial powers played a significant role in the region, until the times in the 1930s when the Chinese government turned to map-making in trying to exert its control over the region. Hayton demonstrates how new Chinese names were invented for many of the islands and reefs, sometimes just translating the names that the French and the British had given to them (like in the case of North Danger Reef in Spratly Islands, which was simply translated into Bei xian), to give legitimacy to the historical claims. The French geographer, Fran├žois-Xavier Bonnet has also shown how China has planted archaeological evidence on the islands in the South China Sea to bolster its territorial claims (Archeology and Patriotism: Long Term Chinese Strategies in the South China Sea, 2015). Following Mao’s revolution, the Communists adopted the policies and maps of the predecessor government.

China, however, has not been the only regional actor trying to ensure access to South China Sea and its resources. Others, not least Vietnam and the Philippines, have been active, too, sometimes using inventive tactics to expand their control. For example, both countries established garrisons on deserted islands in the North Spratly Islands trying to outmaneuver each other. Despite earlier conflicts, these garrisons are now on speaking terms and have even organized football and basketball matches between themselves. One of the core strategies of all the actors has been to try to establish a permanent foothold on uninhabited (and often uninhabitable) islands or mere rocks, so as to be able to claim territorial waters around them. Hayton gives detailed and interesting accounts of these efforts. Placing permanent structures and settlements for military personnel unfortunate enough to be posted in these hostile environments is hard when a rock is unable to support food production or is part of the year submerged under water. These claims can’t be accepted under international law, but it hasn’t stopped China and others from establishing bases on them. This strategy may be dissolved in water when rising sea levels due to global warming fully submerge the geological formations.

Among the key actors in the fray have, naturally, been many energy companies hoping for a bonanza on the hydrocarbons supposedly lying under the South China Sea. The extent of these, as well as the technical and economic feasibility of extracting them, is still somewhat unknown. Still multinationals, such as BP and ExxonMobil (and many of their subsidiaries, some established just for this purpose), as well as national energy companies like the Sinopec (China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation) have entered the geopolitical game as active players. Surely the Secretary of State nominee, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, will be able to advice the incoming President Trump on the intricacies of the situation.

In the sixth chapter, ‘Drums and Symbols: Nationalism’, Hayton discusses how the countries in the region have used sovereignty issues around South China Sea to boost nationalistic sentiments, often to divert attention from domestic problems. Equally obviously, all countries in the basin, as well as outside, such as the United States, use political carrots and sticks to convince others, including those in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), to support their position. China’s diplomacy, which alternates between economic incentives and military threats, is especially powerful in this regard. Towards the end of the book, chapter 8 focuses on ‘Shaping the Battlefield: Military Matters’, outlining the military buildup in the region, as well as the role of the United States armed forces providing security guarantees to its allies, notably Taiwan, but also others.

Last but not at all least, the South China Sea is significant in terms of its environment. Apart from fisheries, Hayton does not spend much time discussing environmental issues. The fishing issue is big enough in itself, given that the 500 million or so, largely poor, people living on the shores of South China Sea depend on fish for their protein. In the last chapter 9, ‘Cooperation and Its Opposites: Resolving the Disputes’, Hayton discusses the declining yields caused by overfishing and development in the sea. There has been a steady increase in the number of fishing operators (from 584,000 in 1980 to 1.8 million in 2002) and the fishing fleets’ power, size and ability to operate far offshore has equally increased. Over the same period, the average catch of a small inshore fisherman has fallen from 20 kg to 2 kg, which barely allows for subsistence. Again, China is the biggest culprit and as its fishing boats have ventured further away, this has led to clashes with other nations’ coast guards. Recognizing the problem, China has attempted to establish periodic fishing bans to allow for the fish stocks to recuperate, but this is not enough. A better solution would be to establish permanent marine protected areas, but this obviously requires agreement and cooperation by all countries in the region.

Apart from the fisheries, the South China Sea basin is a repository of globally significant ecosystems and biodiversity in mangroves, seagrass beds and the like. These are threatened by coastal development, extensive aquaculture, land-based sources of pollution and many other human-induced stresses. The project, ‘Reversing Environmental Degradation Trends in the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand’, funded by the organization that I work for, Global Environment Facility, and implemented by the UN Environment Programme, is a major effort to fight these trends – and it was the first regional program of its kind in which China agreed to participate. I was delighted to see the program getting mention in Hayton’s book.

The South China Sea by Bill Hayton is a good complement to Robert D. Kaplan’s fine 2014 book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. In fact, where Kaplan focuses on military and security issues (while giving geography and politics fair coverage), Hayton’s approach is broader. Especially the historical chapters are amongst the best in the book, bringing new information in a consolidated form and putting the current issues in perspective.

South China Sea is an area with high risk for conflict, even if a shooting war between China and the U.S. would be unlikely. Just earlier this month, a Chinese navy ship intercepted and confiscated a U.S. submarine drone in international waters causing tensions between the two countries. Lynn Kuok, in an opinion piece published by the Brookings Institution this month, advises the incoming administration about the importance of the region for US and global strategic interests (“America first” cannot mean “America alone”: Engaging Southeast Asia). If the US withdraws from the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), ignores ASEAN, and waffles on its interests and commitments in the region, this will only benefit China as the hegemon of the region. Others, like Susan Shirk, head of the China policy center at the University of California San Diego, have argued that the US interests in the South China Sea are limited (see China’s Great Leap Backward by James Fallows in The Atlantic). Then again, as Kuok wrote in June 2016, “The South China Sea dispute is about much more than mere ‘rocks.’ It concerns maritime rights and the preservation of the system of international law. More broadly, how the United States and China interact in the South China Sea has important implications of their relationship elsewhere and on other issues” (The U.S. FON Program in the South China Sea).

In my opinion, the South China Sea issues are so important for regional stability, freedom of navigation, food security, and the global environment, that they deserve the full attention of the world at large.


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