Book Review | The Asian Waters

 By Meyanka Chauhan

Sir Walter Raleigh has rightly remarked, “Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade, whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” This holds true for the Asian continent as it is as much known for its disputed waters as it is for its socio-cultural diversity. The Asian Waters have had immense relevance in the global trade scenario. However, what needs to be noted here is that the region has also acted as a hotbed for some of the most historic disagreements between governments of the surrounding countries on matters of ownership and control over the South China Sea. Hitherto, international law is twisted as per convenience, human rights are violated, democracies endangered and the threat of an impending World War looms over the Asian Waters. With China’s recent intrusion in the South China Sea and the involvement of the West (United States), turmoil and mistrust has escalated in the region. It is as if both the countries are challenging each other’s power and status in the sea at the cost of global peace and security. Geopolitical issues are generally complicated to study, but Humphrey Hawksley has made it very approachable and comprehensible for the masses in his book, Asian Waters: The Struggle over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion. Being a BBC foreign correspondent, he has looked past tough skin and peered through the curtains. His constant fight for the right kind of democracy, law, and justice is voiced in his much-celebrated fictions and non-fictions. The book Asian Waters is a world inspired by politics and enchanted by history. It is a perfect critical examination of Asia’s fault lines that can be traced back to several unresolved conflicts that have taken place in the region. Reading the book is like diving into political literature to know how China interacts with bodies like America, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia and how all of these bodies act as major stakeholders in the South China Sea. The book is divided into five major parts beginning with China and then taking the rest of Asia slowly under the radar. There is no rush of facts, statements, or context, excitement comes little by little pacing oneself to the finish line. The first two parts highlight the mischievous role that China plays in the continent and maps its history of intrusion in the sea. Over time, China has strengthened its position in South East Asia by blocking trade routes, constructing a strong commercial and military network across the Indian Ocean and building artificial islands in the South China Sea. Thereby, intensifying strategic skepticism among Asian countries and making its intentions clear to the US and the world at large. The greed and self-centered passion for power and global domination has pushed China to work on bright looking at present, but destruction beckoning goals in the time to come. Recently, US’ policy of turning inwards under the leadership of Trump has actually helped China establish its status as the “champion of globalisation”. Threatened by China’s growing influence in the continent, United States’s has intervened and assumed the status of the upholder of international law and justice in this dispute many a times. What lies behind this facade is America’s attempts to increase its credibility and impact in the region so as to weaken the ground for China to expand more. Southeast Asian countries are constantly overwhelmed as no region seems more vulnerable to China’s rise than it, which cannot challenge it militarily, needs its trade for its economies, and is uncertain how much it can rely on the US or even if that would be a wise path to pursue. The third section focuses on South Asia that includes poverty-stricken underdeveloped/ developing nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. While East Asia is dominated by China, South Asia is clearly dominated by India. Here, the book sheds light on the ideological and territorial conflict that has bittered the relations between the two countries and then finally, the indirect role that US plays in Asian politics as a result of it’s democratic alliance with India. Hawksley analyses the political relationships of this triad and suggests the potential role that India as an emerging global power could play between the already existing competitors. The fourth part brings into focus the East Asian countries like Japan, Taiwan and North Korea. The idea that Japan views itself nothing less than China is brought to the fore along with the importance of disputed islands in the South China Sea that both the countries claim to own. Apart from that, Hawksley also elaborately talks about the potential threats of the ongoing cyberwarfare and space warfare and how they can be instrumental in exacerbating the maritime situation. North Korea’s reputation as a cyber enemy in the region stands explained and established and the author leaves us to wonder whether it’s technology for humanity or technology exceeding humanity! Furthermore, the long-unsettled dispute on historical claims over the Dongsha Island and China’s constant attempts to harass Taiwan as a democracy are highlighted. One learns about the strategic importance of this island as China, Japan, and South Korea could easily be targeted from here. Evidences suggest that Chinese organised gangs work together to destroy the maritime environment in the South China Sea for profit. Disputes in the South China Sea and the forces that push these conflicts complicate mutual decisions and conclusions and further provide ground for Western countries to interfere. The last section delves into the idea that while the West is looking at tightening its borders, Asia and China are looking at tearing them down. China intends to get credibility and establish its Eastphalian approach in areas where US fails and this stands clearly demonstrated by the South China Sea disputes. It is after a while into the book that you realize what major portion the US holds in Asian history. It seems to be involved as much for power as it is for reputation. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the book Asian Waters is an integral and urgent read for the times we are living in as it questions the hypocracies of China, US and all the countries involved. What probability does China hold in becoming the next superpower or do East Asian countries still look up to America for support and protection? Is China’s strategy to take over Asian countries by influencing and luring a threat to world peace and American devised laws? These are some of the many crucial geopolitical questions that the book attempts to answer.