13 Nov 2018

Review: Asian Waters by Humphrey Hawksley, a survey of the troubled South China Sea

10:03 am on 23 February 2023

Jurrick Oson is a big man, a Filipino raised to work with fish and tides, his skin leathery from a life at sea, as author Humphrey Hawksley describes him. But in 2014, heading out to fish on his usual ground, the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, claimed by both the Philippines and China, he was confronted by Chinese boats. His wooden boat was buzzed by Chinese helicopters, speedboats cut off his path and finally a Coast Guard vessel opened up its water cannon on him. No amount of Filipino protests would reverse the standoff. Scarborough Shoal was lost to the fishermen. Penniless, Jurrick’s wife had to take a job as a maid in Saudi Arabia and he ended driving a motorcycle taxi. Things had changed in the South China Sea. 

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey prepares for a replenishment-at-sea with USNS Pecos, right, in the South China Sea on 19 May 2017.

USS Dewey Photo: AFP

This is one of the opening indelible scenes in Asian Waters: The struggle over the South China Sea and the strategy of Chinese expansion by Hawksley, a former senior BBC correspondent and writer for The Guardian and The Times. He sets out to chart the shifting power balance in Asia and, particularly, the South China Sea caused by a rising China and a suspicious but distant US.

Hawksley has seen much of the changes in modern Asia first-hand. He was the BBC correspondent for Asia through the 1980s and 1990s, covering the Tiananmen Square incident and opening the BBC’s first television bureau in 1994. He has covered wars in the Philippines, Serbia and Sri Lanka. Now he is a writer of thrillers and books on global geopolitics. His latest has received extensive publicity. It is also timely with Jacinda Ardern and a New Zealand delegation joining a gathering of Asian nations this week in Singapore for an east Asian summit, with the growth of China, as so often now, a major topic for discussion.

Asian Waters

What Asian Waters grapples with is the extent to which China’s rise is a problem. There have been two competing theories for 20 years. One is the “China threat theory” which sees Beijing as a disruptor of the international rules system and a competitor economically, militarily and geo-politically to the US. A few years ago, the idea of the “Thucydides trap” was much in use; the idea was a reworking of the Greek historian who charted the rise of Sparta and the eclipse of Athens, noting that a disaffected rising power will challenge automatically the existing power ensconced in the status quo. In this scenario, China is the rising, disruptive Sparta and the US, the Athens desperate to retain control. Set against this was the idea of “China’s peaceful rise”, a theory often promoted within China itself. It points out that China has risen peacefully within a global order not of its making, is concentrating more on lifting its people out of poverty and for all the challenges has not resorted to war. Hawksley tends towards the China threat, but with sympathy for the difficulties China has faced.

A new book, Asian Waters, explores issues in the South China Sea.

A new book, Asian Waters, explores issues in the South China Sea. Photo: Supplied

He attributes much of China’s rise to its determination to overturn the Century of Humiliation when China was ravaged by Britain and other colonial powers, opium and then Japan. But having said that, Hawksley then couches much of his analysis in terms of a Chinese threat to the Asian order.

Uneasy Asia

His is an uneasy Asia, partly in transition from American power to Chinese but also without ways to solve disputes, beyond sheer force. When President Barack Obama announced America’s “pivot to Asia” for its military, China stepped up its fortification of rocks in the South China Sea to build bases. Now it is the front line for Power confrontations and shifting allegiances among the countries which ring the Sea. Hawksley claims that the history of Asia is partly a story of contested waters, while Europe’s history is about contested land. China, with its 14,000 kms of coastline and its economically booming cities along the seaboard, faces US allies Japan and South Korea, a rogue nuclear state in North Korea, a country it views as its lost province, turned US ally, Taiwan and developing states like the Philippines and Vietnam. It feels hemmed in, argues Hawksley.

It would have been interesting if he had explored this even more. Much of the book is spent looking at China from the perspective of the surrounding countries. Psychologists point out the gap between the way a person sees themselves and how we see each other, so partly with countries We see our own actions as being driven by circumstances but we see others’ actions as deriving from their character. So I don’t trim my hedge because I am too busy right now, but my neighbour doesn’t do so because he is lazy. There’s an element of this in both the South China Sea and this book. America likes to think of itself as an upholder of  global values, keeping trade routes open and altruistically ensuring the rule of law. China, on the other hand, is a dangerous thruster, subverting the rules. And this is sometimes how events are portrayed in Hawksley’s telling. 

An aerial photo shows Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea.

An aerial photo shows Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Strong storytelling

As a former correspondent, Hawksley has a wonderful eye for visual scenes which hint at a deeper truth. And he does his best to put the current struggles in longer history. In the middle of the twentieth century, an historical school, the Annales, were in vogue and they believed that writers of history had to move beyond the flow of events to get to the shifting tectonic plates below. They used the example of oceans. On the top of the sea are the waves and the spume which people see but below are the tides of change. Deeper still are the slow-moving currents and even below that are the tectonic plates on the seafloor. Sometimes you can measure non-fiction books by where they would dwell in the Annales’ ocean. Journalists are most comfortable among the froth and tumble of the waves and, like free divers, submerge to go as deep as they can into the currents. Conversely, academics sometimes write as if emerging from the subterranean depths and its slow currents trying to reach towards the surface.

A Chinese navy soldier hangs signal flags on missile destroyer Hefei during a military exercise in the South China Sea.

A Chinese navy soldier hangs signal flags on missile destroyer Hefei during a military exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Humphrey Hawksley is so much better among the waves. He is at his best describing the surface and taking the occasional breath to submerge. He has been a witness to some of the key flashpoints in the region, visited a number of the disputed islands in the South China Sea and interviewed the characters who live on this dividing line, from fishermen to sailors. Here he is on the disputed Daioyu/Senkaku islands, claimed by both Japan and China; “The thought that these desolate blots of maritime nothingness could be the cause of such disagreements between two of the world’s biggest economies beggars belief.” Or walking over Taiwan’s fortified Dongsha Island which looks like a billionaire’ private tropical island, except with artillery everywhere hidden by tarpaulins. Or Taiwan’s Kinmen island, just a half hour ferry ride from China’s now booming Xiamen city. He meets great characters, too, like the Vietnamese fishermen who were beaten by Chinese coastguards, they say, but refuse to stop fishing in their normal waters, now claimed by both sides. Or the two senior Chinese and American military thinkers who are called on at a conference to give their side’s views on how to solve disputes - and end up giving remarkably similar rationale. Or the Chinese academic who points out that for all the tensions, there has been no war since 1975 in the region then compares that to the Middle East.

Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Photo: AFP

At times, though, the foreign correspondent urge to tell interesting tales gets in the way of his bigger story. His discussion of slave or bonded labour in India and the millions of people in its thrall is harrowing but it takes the reader a long way from his point that India has been weakened by corruption and poverty. In similar vein are his lovely stories of going to North Korea as a journalist and having to bite his tongue at the insanity of some announcements; that the Beatles will play a concert for Kim il-Sung or that North Korea will shortly be the first nation to send people to the moon. All demonstrably false but still trumpeted as a triumph for north Korea. They are wonderful yarns by an experienced journalist telling war stories, but a long way from the power politics of the South China Sea.

Could an Indo-Pacific alliance work?

Hawksley has an interesting take on the idea of an Indo-Pacific alliance, which gained traction this year after it was raised by Donald Trump to contain China. An alliance could bring together the great democracies of the region from India and Australia to America, Japan and South Korea in an arc around China. But Hawksley tends to see India as a weak link. In his telling, India is too corrupt, too weakened, too beset by poverty to seriously challenge China. “While China has single-mindedly committed to military expansion, India has muddled along and, as with its overall development, has been left behind.”

Crew members of China's South Sea Fleet take part in a logistics supply drill near the James Shoal area on South China Sea.

Crew members of China's South Sea Fleet take part in a logistics supply drill near the James Shoal area on South China Sea. Photo: AFP

The book ends with Hawksley’s call for a slow revision of the way the world is ordered, before crises arise. “Historically, major reforms to the global system have been implemented only after war.” Talks should begin soon, he argues, on the organs that handle disputes from the UN to the WTO and how to forge a new way of working to include China. Plus, China and America would need to be clear that both depend on open trade routes rather than leaping to confrontation. “If China does see itself as the new force in the world, it is up to China to get it right. The first step would be to initiate a peaceful and pragmatic end to the disputes in Asian waters.”

Filipinos object to China's claims in South China Sea

Filipinos object to China's claims in South China Sea Photo: AFP

Out on the Scarborough Shoal, though, where the Philippines and China dispute ownership, some things have already been settled. Fisherman Jurrick Oson is back fishing, Hawksley points out. In 2016, the Filipino fishermen were allowed back by the Chinese Coast Guard. The Philippines complained to The Hague about China’s seizure of the Shoal and the judges unanimously agreed. But China rejected the decision and has maintained control. Jurrick is allowed back fishing, his wife has returned home from the Middle East from her job as a maid and he now sells most of his fish - to China. Power had shifted.

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