In his 2020 book on energy and geopolitics, the American Pulitzer prizewinning author and energy expert Daniel Yergin focuses a major part of his 430-page volume, The New Map: Energy, Climate and the Clash of Nations, on the South China Sea (SCS).
He explains and traces the history and importance of the waterway and why it has become a flashpoint for international conflict in recent years.
Significantly, Yergin traces the dispute over the SCS to a map drawn 84 years ago by a Chinese “cartographer combatant” who wanted specifically to raise Chinese patriotism and pride.
In a review of Yergin’s book in Forbes magazine (Sept. 20, 2020), Robert Bryce, energy analyst and journalist, commented that Yergin does a better job of explaining the history and importance of the South China Sea than anything he has read. He wrote:
“Yergin’s multi-chapter focus on the ‘world’s most critical waterway’ makes sense because the South China Sea is in the news almost every day. Last week, China accused the US of disguising the identity of military aircraft it operates over the disputed waterway. The South China Morning Post reported that US Air Force planes are, according to a Chinese official, ‘impersonating the transponder code of civilian aircraft from other countries.’ Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also said, ‘We urge the US to immediately stop such dangerous provocations, to avoid accidents from happening in the sea and air.’
“The same story notes that last month, a US surveillance plane flew through a declared no-fly zone while the Chinese military was conducting exercises in the Yellow Sea. That flight led to a protest from China’s defense ministry.”
Bryce praised the breadth of Yergin’s reporting. But the most interesting part of the New Map, he said, was about the South China Sea and how that contested stretch of ocean could become the site of an international conflict.
Every year, some $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the South China Sea. That trade includes about a third of world LNG shipments. The South China Sea also produces about 10 percent of the world’s fish catch and about 40 percent of its tuna.
“China imports 75 percent of its oil and a large part of that passes through those waters,” Yergin said.
Yergin traces the history back to the 1930s, when a French naval captain claimed the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea for France. But France’s claim to the region quickly evaporated. Today, China is claiming most of the South China Sea for itself. That claim is contested by Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
He explains that China’s claims to the South China Sea, including the Spratlys and the Paracel Islands, are rooted in a map drawn in 1936 by “a singular cartographic combatant” named Bai Meichu, who was “one of China’s most influential and respected geographers. His work was inspired not only by longitudes and latitudes but also by “nationalist passion.”
Chinese national humiliation map
Meichu drew the “nine-dash map” which is “at the heart of today’s struggle over the South China Sea.” That map, which is sometimes referred to as a “long cow tongue” includes a nine-dash line that extends south from the Chinese mainland, and extends along the coast of Vietnam, to Indonesia and Malaysia, and then back north along the coast of the Philippines, and to the east of Taiwan.
Meichu’s map was called the “Chinese National Humiliation Map” designed to help “common people to be patriotic.” The map has become central to China’s identity and its desire to avenge the wrongs perpetrated against it by the British, the Japanese and others. In 2013, according to Yergin, a prominent Chinese geographer said that Meichu’s nine-dash map is “deeply engraved in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people” and that several generations of Chinese grade-school students have been taught that China’s territory includes the South China Sea.
In an interview on the Power Hungry Podcast, Yergin and Robert Bryce talked about the history of the nine-dash map and the South China Sea. According to Yergin, the South China Sea is the place “where the US Navy and the Chinese navy could collide and there have been several near misses there. And the big worry, the big concern, the big fear, is that sometimes there may not be a near miss. And what happens if there is some kind of collision or some kind of action that involves us and Chinese navies in that region? And given that the relationship between the US and China is becoming much more confrontational, how do you resolve it?”
But the US and China aren’t the only countries interested in the South China Sea and the potential for conflict in the region has been increasing in recent years. In September 2020, the South China Morning Post carried a story with the headline, “In a US-China war, whose side is Southeast Asia on?” Similarly, at the same time, Australian media reported that Indonesia was “on high alert” after a Chinese coast guard vessel “imposed itself in Indonesian waters, some 1,500 kilometers from mainland China.”
In short, the South China Sea is among the world’s most dangerous flashpoints. The value of New Map is that it will help readers understand how an old map made it so dangerous.
Choking on code of conduct
For the past seven years, China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have been discussing a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
China keeps saying that its first draft of the code is ready but details of it have never been released.
The code of conduct is always set for discussion in every Asean leaders’ summit each November, but it does not look likely that China will ever come up with a draft. It probably chokes over words that would have to concede the right of Asean countries to their exclusive economic zones under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.