Bill Hayton: The South China Sea – The Struggle for Power in Asia (Review)

Based on the latest references, Bill Hayton’s book is an accessible yet scientifically accurate account of the historical, political, strategic and economic aspects of the South China Sea disputes. It is one of the best recent summaries of the problem posing the greatest challenge to the safety of the South Asian region.

Bill Hayton, an associate fellow a Chatham House and a journalist of BBC World News has spent several years as a reporter and consultant in South Asia and his writings have been published, among others, in The Economist, the South China Morning Post, The Diplomat and the National Interest. His first book Vietnam: Rising Dragon was published in 2010. In 2014, Yale University Press published his new book, The South China Sea – The Struggle for Power in Asia, which was extremely positively received. The Economist chose it the book of the year. The author has endeavoured no lesser task than presenting and comprehensively analysing the South China Sea dispute, which today poses a major challenge to security policy.

One of the main characteristics of Hayton’s book is its accessible, understandable style, which appeals to the general reader. Basically, this work is not dedicated to a narrow, professional audience, although they can also find new information therein; especially, because extensive research was conducted before the publication of the book. Through face-to-face interviews, the author wanted to gain information first-hand from the people concerned, later incorporating it into the narrative. These personal stories make the account lively while they provide useful additions to the presentation of the facts.  In his book, Hayton does a fantastic job of covering the historical, legal, economic, political and strategic dimensions of the disputes. In addition, it also gives a detailed account of today’s key issues, such as the relationship of China and the United States, the concept of rebalancing or the role of nationalism in the region.

A brief summary of the South China Sea disputes is as follows: referring to historical rights, China claims 90 percent of the area (the nine-dash line area), which is also claimed by other states. The Paracel Islands are contested by the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and Vietnam, but the situation is even more difficult in the case of the Spratley Islands, since China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are all concerned. Confrontation is inevitable, since the unclarity of maritime boundaries and land territories are important factors in acquiring the rights to fishing areas and energy carriers as well as the strategic control of important trade routes, which is a priority for China, the USA and their allies. Therefore, all countries from South Asia to East Asia are concerned by the disputes to some extent.

The first chapters of the book give an overview of the history of the South China Sea region from the early days until the end of the 20th century. Although conflicts did not flare up until the late 20th century, the author’s viewpoint is – quite rightly – that understanding the past is essential to interpret current events, since today’s disputes fundamentally root in the past. One of the major problems is that certain countries try to interpret historical facts and conclusions for their own interests to underpin their territorial claims, thus several conflicting theories on the history of the region have been formulated. Overall, it can be concluded that until the arrival of colonisers, international relations, dominated by the relationships of Southeast mandalas and the Chinese vassal system, in which ethnicity, nation, sovereignty hardly had any significance, were strikingly different from the current ones.

The arrival of the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch marked the beginning of a process in which the colonizing powers drew the borders of the countries in Southeast Asia in accordance with their spheres of interest. Maps became increasingly significant, while maritime law also received much attention, thanks to Hugo Grotius. By the end of the 19th century, Europeans had demarcated their interests also on the South China Sea – drawing the borderlines in a region in which these had had no significance for centuries –, creating present-day problems. Before World War II, the French ruling China, Japan and Vietnam made several attempts to gain control over some islands, but, regarding the balance of power between major powers, it had no considerable significance then.

After the Japan occupation during the world war, Communist China, Taiwan and the independent states of Southeast Asia, Vietnam and the Philippines all attempted to expand their influence in the region of the Spratley and the Paracel Islands. After China declared its nine-dash line in 1949, the Philippine attempts lead by Tomas Cloma in the 1950s can be mentioned, then in the 1970s, supposedly thanks to the oil fields discovered in the meantime, South then North Vietnam also joined the list of rivals (in the meantime, Taiwan managed to consolidate its control over the largest island, Itu Aba). China did not refrain from military engagements between Saigon, and invaded the Paracel Islands in 1974. Later, when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established and the new state did not give up its territorial claims, another maritime battle took place in 1988, resulting in the Chinese occupation of several reefs on the Spratly Islands. Eventually, in 1995, Beijing occupied the Mischief Reef against the Philippines.

In chapter 4, seemingly less significant historical events are presented by reference to international law, up to the 20th century, when the practice, still effective today, of demarcating seas and other geographical features was defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. Being familiar with the criteria of the convention, in certain cases we can draw adequate conclusions about the possible demarcation of geographical features, but there are several factors complicating our judgement. Hayton, after having examined the rightfulness of the territorial claims of different countries, draws the conclusion that, with regard to legal hurdles, almost no valid claims exist from a historical perspective, thus no just decision can be expected from any court. In the rest of the chapter, detailed information is provided about the infrastructure, living conditions and military significance of the islands occupied by particular countries.

The next chapter is about the economic significance of the South China Sea, primarily focusing on the circumstances of exploring and exploiting oil and gas fields. Since the 1980s, the countries concerned, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, offered concessions to various foreign oil companies (Crestone, BP, Exxon) to exploit energy resources in the disputed parts of the sea, but these projects, owing to the lure of Chinese investments and Beijing’s violent conduct, did not live up to expectations. Parallel to economic development, there is an increasing demand for fossil fuels – especially on behalf of China –, therefore the exploitation of new deposits enjoys priorities.

According to the estimates of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the South China Sea has about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas but only a fraction of it could be tradable. Chinese estimates are more optimistic, but since no concrete, comprehensive assessment was made of the region, and experts doubt these opinions, while others regard any drill stem testing in the region senseless, being convinced of the futility of such efforts.

Hayton claims the nationalisms of the different countries play an important role in the disputes but not in the way that governments present them. Economic development, the appearance of the internet media and the desire of self-expression are all important drivers of nationalism, which is primarily directed towards neighbouring countries. In Vietnam, we can talk about demonstrations or waves of protests on internet, supported and controlled by the government, instead of spontaneous outbursts of Sinophobia.  It also functions as a kind of safety valve, distracting attention from other problems and preventing the expression of criticism against the Communist party. In the Philippines, due to the lack of solutions of social problems, the rage of theorists is directed towards both China and the United States, although the latter one is regarded the source of the greatest problem. Left-wings movements blame the USA and the US-friendly political elite for the weakness and the poverty of the nation and unsettled social conflicts. In China’s case, the situation is similar to that in Vietnam: nationalist manifestations are supported by the state and serve as the distraction of attention, and, in the other hand, also function as sophisticated tools of diplomacy in the hands of the leadership, with the help of which they can demonstrate strength or weakness to foreign countries.

On the whole, Hayton claims the nationalists do not exert considerable influence on political decision making in either country; on the contrary, it is the politicians who use nationalistic slogans for their own purposes.

Chapter 7 tries to explore the diplomatic background of the disputes, in the light of the rivalry between the United States and China. Cambodia is an excellent example of the diplomatic strategy of the small countries in the region: it aims at maintaining a good relationship with both major powers, thwarting them against each other, while profiting as much as possible from their contest. Although the countries of Southeast Asia regard the military dominance of the USA in the region advantageous, economically they perceive China’s rise more intensely, and they do not want to take sides with either of the giants, but take advantage of the opportunities arising. Afterwards, the author describes in full detail the initial period of the American rebalancing concept and the plans drawn in 2008 and 2009, which later constituted the fundamentals of president Obama’s policy on Asia. Regarding the value of the book as a resource, one of the most important part is the detailed description of the critical negotiations of the 21st ASEAN summit taking place in 2012, during which the adoption of a code of conduct facilitating the resolution of the South China Sea disputes failed in the last moment. As we can remember, the chairman of the organization at that time, Cambodia, openly committed itself to China, confronting the initiative of the Philippines and Vietnam, and displaying the disunity of ASEAN countries regarding their relationships with China to the external world.

In the rest of the chapter, the author puts his emphasis on discussing military issues. He draws attention to the difference in China’s and the US’s approach to the American operations aimed to maintain the freedom of navigation, then he presents the development of Chinese military potential, along with American reactions. China’s main goal is to keep the American fleet away its coasts, and state-of-the-art anti-ship ballistic missiles can play a great role in that, since they pose a danger to American aircraft carriers too. As a response, the Americans developed the AirSea Battle doctrine, the essence of which is launching kinetic and non-kinetic attacks in a potential conflict with China, primarily to destroy the enemy’s command centres, satellites and radar systems, in line with the principles of information warfare. The USA do not need permanent bases in the region any more, but accessibility to certain areas and infrastructure should be ensured by allies. Despite the evolving arms race, countries of the South East are unable to compete with China, therefore the American-Chinese military rivalry will be predominant also in the future.

In the last chapter, the author examines the possible alternatives to resolve disputes.  The Philippines fundamentally seeks to resolve conflicting interests by reference to international law, but China is distrustful and unwilling to make any compromise about the nine-dash line. Beijing, however, is keen on a resolution through bilateral negotiations, during which China’s supremacy over its rivals would prevail. The joint exploitation of raw material resources does not seem to be simple, either, since the Chinese rules of the game are not acceptable for smaller countries. Events in the past have demonstrated that informal meetings often have more outcome than formal negotiations, but on the whole, multilateral agreements between the countries concerned would represent real results. Resolving the disputes in a short term is impossible, because, despite the fact that escalation is not in the interest of either party, they are not willing to remit their claims for economic, political and strategical reasons.

In the Epilogue, Hayton abandons his pessimism, and believes that there is little chance of the outbreak of a war, although the intensification of tensions is expected from time to time, while the USA remains the dominant power – at least militarily – in Southeast Asia and the Pacific despite China’s efforts.


  • Hayton, Bill: The South China Sea – The Struggle for Power in Asia. London, Yale University Press, 2014.

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