The South China Sea is where China’s ambitions meet Asian nervousness and American power. In its waters China has abandoned any pretence of “peaceful rise” in favour of gunboat diplomacy. Armed Chinese Coastguard ships have rammed their Vietnamese rivals, blockaded Philippine outposts, disrupted Malaysian oil surveys and threatened Indonesian vessels which protect the nation’s fisheries. In response, all these countries are buying more arms and improving military ties with other governments worried by China’s growing assertiveness—primarily the United States but also Japan, South Korea, India and Australia.
At the root of all of this trouble is what Beijing calls its “indisputable historical claim” to 80 per cent of the South China Sea: all the way from Hong Kong harbour almost to the coast of Borneo, 1500km away. The problem with the claim is that there’s no credible evidence to support it. Yet this piece of historical fiction threatens peace and security in Asia and provides the stage for a struggle between China and the US with global implications. It seems scarcely credible that this potentially cataclysmic confrontation is, at its root, a dispute over almost entirely uninhabitable specks of land.
There are two main sets of “islands” in the South China Sea. (Only a very few are real islands, the vast majority are just reefs, sandbars or rocks). In its northern reaches, the Paracel Islands are disputed between China and Vietnam. In the south the much more extensive Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Most of these desolate places have British names, often donated by the ships and crews that mapped them. Richard Spratly was a whaling captain who spotted his island in 1843, HMS Iroquois gave its name to Iroquois Reef during survey work in the 1920s, and so on.