They have names like Pigeon Reef, West Sand, Taisho-To, and Scarborough Shoal. Most are no more than outcrops of rock poking out of the sea. Most have never been inhabited. Few have any direct economic value. If not for the perceived fish and oil wealth in the waters around them, the spat over these specks in the South China Sea would read like the bizarre disputes between Lilliput and Blefuscu in Gulliver’s Travels.
But for Beijing, the battle for these remote islands is part of a wider geopolitical aim: control over the entire South China Sea and its potential resource wealth. Tensions are rising. In August a Chinese Navy fighter plane buzzed a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, narrowly missing it. Two months earlier, an armed Chinese vessel chased and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. China is also at loggerheads with Japan and the Philippines, which the U.S. is obligated under treaty to defend.
Speaking from his home in London, Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, explains how China is a victim of its own propaganda, why the South China Sea is also crucial to American interests, and how “peace parks” could save collapsing fish stocks and defuse military tensions.