- - Wednesday, May 1, 2013


By Sarah Raine and Christian Le Miere
The International Institute For Strategic Studies, $26.95, 300 pages

The Spratlys and the Paracels would hardly seem to be worth fighting over. Consisting of a few small islands and a few dozen rock outcroppings, many of which are underwater at high tide, they lack a source of fresh water and have never been inhabited — until now.

A half-dozen nations are busily building military installations throughout the island chains. These range in size from the impressive Chinese installation on Woody Island in the Paracels, which features a 1.7-mile military airstrip on the 1-mile-wide island, to the boxy concrete bunker that Vietnam has constructed on the entirely submerged Rifleman Bank in the Spratlys, to the rusting freighter that the Philippines has run aground on Scarborough Reef.

As this comparison suggests, it is China that has been the most assertive claimant of the island chains. In fact, as Sarah Raine and Christian Le Miere point out in their new book, “Regional Disorder,” its ambition is not limited to the islands or even to the 200 nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that surrounds them, but encompasses the vast majority of the South China Sea itself.

The sheer audacity of China’s claim to own vast stretches of open ocean 1,200 miles south of its southernmost island of Hainan is, well, breathtaking. The authors note that China’s claim “extends in an approximation of a cow’s tongue down into much of the sea, appearing to encompass all the islands therein as well as around 80 percent of the water.”

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a China-bashing book. Indeed, the authors bend over backward to present a nuanced and balanced picture of the dispute over the South China Sea, and to give every nation its due. The result is a carefully assembled and numbingly complete analysis of the multiple and competing claims of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan — as well as China — to parts of the same body of water.

When one looks carefully at these several claims, reviewing their historical bases, and examining the assorted strategies that are being used to bolster these claims, one thing leaps out: China is almost single-handedly driving this conflict.

I say not just because of the size of China’s claim, but because of its sheer ambiguity. Beijing balks at delimiting its claim, other than to draw a dashed line around the South China Sea that appears to run less than 50 miles from the coast of the countries — Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines — that actually surround the sea. It is difficult, if not impossible, to enter into negotiations with a country that simply refuses to precisely state its claims.

Moreover, according to the authors, the Chinese claim has shallow roots, dating back only to a map that was drawn up in 1947. By way of comparison, they note, there are official records of Nguyen Dynasty Emperor Minh Mang ordering the construction of a temple and stele on the Paracel Islands in 1835. Yet, apparently acting on the principle that possession is nine-tenths of the law, China took the Paracels from Vietnam by force in 1974 and continues to hold the islands today against all comers.

China’s claims are usually interpreted in economic terms. Indeed, China’s voracious appetite for energy has greatly exceeded domestic sources, and the continental shelf of the South China Sea is suspected to possess vast oil and natural-gas fields. Yet Beijing’s efforts to transform the South China Sea into a Chinese lake have strategic reasons as well. The Strait of Malacca is a maritime choke point connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Through this vital sea lane passes 70 percent of the crude oil used to fire the economies of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Effective control of these shipping lanes would give Beijing valuable leverage against its regional adversaries.

The authors close their study of one of the world’s flash points by outlining a series of future scenarios. In one, the South China Sea becomes “nobody’s sea,” with all claimants learning to live together peacefully. In another, it becomes “somebody’s sea,” with one nation achieving regional hegemony. In still another, it becomes an “everybody’s sea,” where the competing claims are not resolved, but rather managed to the extent that open conflict is avoided. But in each and every one, China is the essential driver of events.

At the end of the day, it is Beijing’s behavior that will determine what kind of “sea” the world inherits. This, in turn, will go a long way toward determining whether the regional order in Southeast Asia is one of cooperation, competition or conflict.

So far, like Imperial China of old, it has shown little willingness to compromise with its onetime tributary states to the south on what it increasingly refers to as a “core interest”: the sea that bears its name.

Steven Mosher is the author, with Chuck DeVore, of “China Attacks” (Infinity Publishing, 2001), a fictional account of future conflict in Asia.

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