ASIAN WATERS: THE STRUGGLE OVER THE ASIAN-PACIFIC AND THE STRATEGY OF CHINESE EXPANSION
This is the book that many of us have been waiting for. There is no shortage of books and papers covering the activities of China in Asia and beyond. Daily we read the latest reports on encroachment into areas beyond its shores and of its ambition to create a defensive Great Wall of the Sea. This, together with the re-establishment of the Silk Road and direct trade to Europe under its belt and road policies, is big news. But so far no-one has managed to pull together a comprehensive, easy to read coverage of both China’s Century of Humiliation, and the reasons for its current approach towards scores of nation states.
Humphrey Hawksley, a distinguished journalist and writer, has now done so in great detail. Not from the ivory towers of Whitehall or the White House, in indeed academia, but as if it were from the ground and sea levels of the region itself. He writes as a specialist for those who are less so, and covers an immense subject in an enthralling way.
In his Preface he clinically analyses Asia and its cultures, from the Greek word which gives the continent its name, through the disparate mix of religions and over a thousand different languages. In Europe we have around two hundred. He likens Asia to a great banquet of varying dishes, with America recently at its head but which now, dish by dish, China is taking over.
China’s method has been to threat and then to use trade to sweeten the pill. Remember Walter Raleigh’s link between commanding he seas, trade and thus the world? I’ll offer just one example of many by Hawksley which says it all. In 2014, and in Philippine waters, China took by force the atoll of Bajo de Masinloc, better known as Scarborough Shoal. Philippine fishermen using the shoal were brutally treated and lost their livelihoods, but China then followed through using an 11th century method of “certainty of reward” in which it guaranteed to take all Philippine caught fish at market prices. The fishermen are happy, and fishing again, the Government despite formal protestations is resigned to the situation, and China has expanded its waters to widen the protection of its shores. Oblivious to international laws and agreements, this step by step salami slicing process of subduing a competitor without fighting it succeeding. NO one, least of all America, has done more than protest or make gestures by sailing in what are now Chinese dominated waters. Hawksley cover the history, the politics, the economics and the outcome with distinction.
His next three parts deal with the rest of Asia including of course reminders of how their near neighbours Japan and Vietnam, and more recently the separation of Taiwan, relate to China’s initiatives. He can be harshly critical of much of what he sees in South Asia and he makes clear the high-risk nuclear issues involving India and Pakistan. I particularly want to mention his analysis of India where he writes of the “violence of poverty.”
In South Asia we see many more of the most dysfunctional and somewhat corrupt states in Asia, and it has long been India that has dominated the area. Hawksley dismisses the India of Bollywood glamour and physical beauty and sets aside its current industrial and high-tech success to emphasise the fragility of the region. He looks at high levels of poverty where 70 per cent of Indians have no access to toilets, with many having to defecate in the open. Over 30 per cent have no ready access to water, and he goes on to present a picture of high levels of distress and corruption in a state whose population growth is over 6 per cent per annum. Yet India seeks to oppose Chinese expansion and influence despite trading widely with China, and nominally being supported by the USA. To what extent can they rely on an America that also has essential and heavy trade with China? The US has opted out of the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank, designed by China to fund dams, schools, roads and railways. Britain has of course joined.
I make no excuse for saying that the chapter on India comes as close to any that I have read in bringing a tear to the eye. If this is too emotional let us recall that it is a man who has sailed Asian waters with fishermen and others, who has walked the rough paths between villages in India and elsewhere and seen for himself. He has seen the evidence that ten million Indians are in bonded slave labour, and has sat with the great and the good in East and West in interview and learn. His coverage of East Asia is similarly forensic and down to earth. These early chapters are supported by simple maps and a dozen or so photographs, which to be fair are more illustrative than informative, except for the remarkable views of the China Sea atolls.
Hawksley’s last chapters deal with Great Power status and the world order, asking who in the East or West is in charge, and defining the fault lines which have developed. I see two great uncertainties. Will China overstretch itself? It may have already done so, and will it have to think again? If not, are we on the edge of a new Cold War where frustration on all sides may bring a loss of political and military stability.
Hawksley in this rare and deeply considered guide has explored the Chinese strategy, defining where China and Asia stand at this moment, and how we got here. He has given us a much-needed basis on which to understand China and its determination which appears to be unshakeable. He has done two further things. First, he has offered to speak and discuss the issues with all concerned. Second, in producing a high-quality book and keeping the price reasonable, no doubt he will encourage many people to read it. This may be the best value book on the subject in today’s market. For me, it is required reading and strongly recommended.