The South China Sea, notes Bernard Cole, a former US Navy captain who also taught maritime strategy at the National War College, covers four million square kilometers, has significant energy resources, and contains trade arteries through which one-third of the world’s commerce transits. Its geographic location astride the Southeast Asian littoral makes it the maritime gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s claim of sovereignty over the entire sea and conflicting claims by other countries in the region make the South China Sea a geopolitical flashpoint and potential scene of military conflict among regional and global powers.

Writers of all stripes tend to dislike discussing their formative years and experiences. Getting to grips with the job of translating one’s understanding of a subject into something publishable tends to be painful enough, without then raking over the process in retrospect. This can lead to a sense, however, that somehow writers arrive fully-formed, with a gift for observation and understanding which requires little practice or refinement. This feeling can be particularly acute in regard to those who write on China, the “university in which no degree is ever granted”, to adapt Stanley Karnow’s phrase, where the gulf between ignorance and understanding often appears so vast.

The rise and fall of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the so-called BRIC nations, is the great geo-economic story of the twenty-first century. In the early 2000s, these countries were tipped to redraw the economic map of the world. With a combined population of nearly 3 billion, they constituted roughly 40 percent of the world’s people. Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, they were among the fastest-growing countries in the world, sailing through the 2008-2009 global financial crisis in a way that made them the envy of the world. When the long-standing G-7 group of developed countries proved unable to meet the challenges posed by the crisis, the wider G-20—including all four BRICs economies—rose to the occasion. At a time when developed countries were talking austerity, the BRICs countries opened the taps on government spending. The crisis did not turn into the second Great Depression (though it looked as though it might in early 2009). For this, surely some of the credit goes to the swift action taken by the BRICs to stimulate domestic demand.

The subtitle of Kerry Brown’s new book, China’s World: What Does China Want?, is a question that is on the minds of the world’s statesmen, policymakers, international relations scholars, global investment advisors, international business leaders and geopolitical thinkers. Given China’s growing global diplomatic, economic, and military footprint, the answer to that question will shape the geopolitics of the rest of the 21st century.