He strides into his introduction with an imagined scenario in which an attempt by the Philippines to take possession of the Bajo de Masingloc spirals out of control, resulting in a diplomatic crisis and military engagement not only with Beijing, but also involving Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi and Hanoi.
Hayton has spent much of his professional life working for the BBC and so his storytelling is well developed. Unlike many of the academics who have written previously on the South China Sea, Hayton presents a wholly accessible account that weaves well thought out arguments with vivid descriptions. He understands the importance of engaging his audience; points are explained clearly and his examples, which are as recent as the disappearance of flight MH370 in March 2014, bring each issue to life.
The first part of The South China Sea is divided chronologically which, if anything, serves to reinforce the idea that the territorial claims of any modern sovereign state are decidedly recent. Hayton draws upon archaeological and anthropological evidence to build up a picture of a region with a diverse patchwork of ethnicities, the remnants of endless waves of migration.
Though Hayton takes a balanced view of the situations he discusses, it is clear in his writings that there can be no resolution to the problems of the South China Sea without China’s engagement. As long as Beijing pursues its ‘huge bluff in a game of strategic poker’, we are all vulnerable to future fall-out.
THE SOUTH CHINA SEA: The Struggle for Power in Asia by Bill Hayton, Yale University Press, £20
This review was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine