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The US Pacific Fleet regularly sails through the South China Sea as a reminder of its power to assert free trade in the waters. Photo: AFP

Book review: The South China Sea - The Struggle for Power in Asia, by Bill Hayton

Disputes over the South China Sea can seem as unfathomable as the storm-swept waters that batter its contested cluster of tiny islands, uninhabitable rocks and semi-submerged reefs.

The South China Sea – The Struggle for Power in Asia
by Bill Hayton
Yale University Press

Disputes over the South China Sea can seem as unfathomable as the storm-swept waters that batter its contested cluster of tiny islands, uninhabitable rocks and semi-submerged reefs.

Bill Hayton's superb and timely book, , brings much-needed clarity to an issue that poses a threat to the region, if not the world. A BBC journalist and Southeast Asia specialist, Hayton makes full use of his trade-craft to spin a page-turning thriller packed with anecdotes, historical characters and eye-witness accounts.

Few of the actors emerge unscathed: the US is a domineering hegemonist, the Philippines bumbling and inept, while Vietnam's regime is plagued by many of the same issues as China's.

China's extensive claims are perhaps best known: a sweeping line formed from nine dashes that gobbles up a vast swathe of the South China Sea and encroaches on the territorial waters of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Beijing's bullying of its smaller neighbours over the issue is also well known.

Less familiar, perhaps, are the historical roots for China's claim - or lack thereof. Hayton shows how the South China Sea was largely unknown - or uncharted - by the Chinese until recent times. Once Chinese nationalists determined to assert ownership little more than a century ago, they borrowed names from European charts, rather than using ones that might be expected from an empire with historical claims on the area.

Take James Shoal, called Zengmu Tan by the Chinese: this southernmost territory claimed by China lies about 22 metres below the sea - but there is no basis for a territorial claim on a submerged feature under international law. Indeed, as Hayton shows, the majority of the land features in the area wouldn't generate much of a claim to the surrounding sea were the disputes put to international arbitration. Which explains why China refuses to submit to outside adjudication of its claims.

China's protests over its sovereignty can seem childish and baseless, although Hayton places the disputes in the context of China as an emerging maritime power constrained by international rules drawn up to ensure the ascendancy of European trading nations and their free-trade successor, the US.

The US has its own "inviolable" position: the South China Sea must remain open to shipping and therefore, no nation may take sovereign rights over it. The economic importance of the oil tankers and freighters that grease the global economy far outweigh the value of the islands, their fishing grounds or any hydrocarbons that may lie beneath them - which are unlikely to have the vast reserves many would have you believe.

America won't budge on this issue, so the US Pacific Fleet regularly sails through the waters as a bristling reminder of its power to assert free trade.

Between these two tussling "elephants" are the region's "ants", which all have either a direct claim on the area or an interest in the advantage to be gained by playing China and the US against each other. Cambodia's leader, Hun Sen, has been particularly adroit at this game, Hayton says, showered by the tit-for-tat largesse of superpowers jostling for influence.

As China flexes its financial and diplomatic muscle, the US must be seen to be doing the same. Washington's "pivot" to Asia helps shore up resistance to China's bullying in the South China Sea. But it is also a destabilising factor that fuels military tensions in the region.

Having boxed itself into the nationalist corner, Beijing has little room to manoeuvre without appearing weak and bringing its legitimacy to rule into question.

"From primary school to politburo, the U-shaped line has become a secular religion," Hayton writes. "The higher governments raise the rhetorical stakes the more difficult they will find it to climb down and reach a settlement."