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US and allies outgunned in South China Sea

Three books published this year contemplate Asia’s most vexing problem. Taken together, they provide a thorough understanding of the contest in the South China Sea. Still, they leave the reader with one large puzzle.

Asia’s Cauldron recounts, in Robert Kaplan’s readable travelogue style, the fascinating political and economic trajectories of the nations surrounding the South China Sea. A strategic geographer, Kaplan explains why the South China Sea — which from China’s perspective is its ‘Caribbean’ but which a divided ASEAN attempts to keep ‘Mediterranean’ — is so crucial. US$5.3 trillion of trade transits the area annually. Economics underpins Kaplan’s insight: the divergent developmental performance of adjacent states has tilted the power balance, and this asymmetry has exacerbated the latent tension of the region.

‘Latent’ because the rich history of the South China Sea fates dispute. Both Kaplan, and Bill Hayton in The South China Sea describe the Malay and Indochinese civilizations that plied these waters before and after Christ’s birth. Deng Xiaoping asserted in 1975 that the islands of the South China Sea ‘have belonged to China since ancient times’, but he mentioned only islands, and definitions of ‘belong’, ‘China’ and ‘ancient’ are disputable. The successive Chinese dynasties had vacillating interest in maritime trade. Soon after Zheng He’s final epic voyage the Europeans turned up. By the 1600s, Grotius and Selden were arguing the legal basis for open versus closed seas, a debate that has reopened again over the islands, reefs and waters of the South China Sea.

Ironically, it was the withdrawal of the European (and Japanese and American) colonists in the 20th century that catalysed today’s disputes.

Most consequential was China’s submission of the U-shaped Nine Dash Line in 1947 (subsequently reaffirmed in 2009), an abstract, unprecedented claim of ‘historical waters.’ An unseemly scramble for …read more

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