Jurrick Oson is a big man, forty-six years old, with muscles bulging inside his bright purple sleeveless T-shirt. He was raised to work around nets, fish, tides, and weather, and his skin is leathery from a lifetime at sea. His boat had always been moored at the end of a dirt track, with shacks and small stalls on one side and the gently lapping sea on the other. It was a colorful, chaotic old vessel, painted in yellows, greens and blues, and she plied her trade as such boats had done for thousands of years.
Excerpted from Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea & the Strategy of Chinese Expansion by Humphrey Hawksley
There was no refrigeration on board. The catch was stored in ice- boxes. Underwater lights to lure shoals of fish were made up of household lamps in glass coffee jars sealed by glue and tape and powered by old car batteries. Ropes and wires lashed different bits together around a narrow wooden hull, and bamboo stabilizers stretched out on each side like the wings of an albatross.
This was a pace and a way of life that could not last. The sea stretched westward, dappled with sunlight in a mix of bright tropical blues and murky grays toward Oson’s fishing ground, Bajo de Masinloc. It was about a hundred miles away, and named after his rugged coastal community of Masinloc in the Philippines, whose fishermen had worked the same patch of sea for centuries.
There were echoes in Masinloc of the old steel towns of America, the long-closed textile mills of Britain: a community harboring a way of life whose time had passed. The village is a five-hour drive north of the capital Manila; part of the journey is along brand-new highways with service stations, sparkling restrooms, and coffee shops. Then, off the highway, Masinloc itself lies an hour or so down a narrow coast road with shanty shacks and old Spanish churches painted faded yellow and blue. It is a place where change was bound to come and, in Oson’s case, it arrived in the form of a water cannon from a Chinese gunboat.
“I am so angry,” he said when I met him, his eyes flitting back and forth between the land and the sea. “If I’d had a gun, I’d have fought them.” Shaking with fury, he told how in February 2014 he was on a routine fishing trip around Bajo de Masinloc when his boat was suddenly buzzed by Chinese helicopters. Men in speedboats cut across his boat’s path, threatening his crew with weapons. Finally, a China Coast Guard vessel roared up to the wooden Philippine boat and opened up its powerful water cannon. “This powerful jet of water smashed into my boat,” Oson said. “Then it hit me directly and I was thrown into the sea. I tried to scramble up, and they hit me again. It was as if they really wanted to kill me. If America supports us, we should go to war with them.”
But America did not come to his rescue, and there was no war. And Oson has since been unable to work his traditional fishing grounds. I met him on the day he came back from his first fishing trip in more than three years. He told me how he had tried to make ends meet by taking passengers here and there in a little motorcycle taxi, a vehicle too small for his bulky frame, a job too humdrum for a man used to the challenges of the sea.
Eyes narrowed against the sun, face at ease with the elements, Oson explained that he had been unable to earn enough money to provide for his family. His wife, Melinda, became an overseas domestic worker and took a three-year contract in Saudi Arabia, sending money back every month. Oson was gutted, his esteem and confidence gone. Other families in the village had to do the same. The women, proud matriarchs, swallowed their pride to become servants in Middle Eastern households. Relatives and neighbors looked after the children while Oson, with little work and too much time on his hands, imagined going to war against China.
“The Chinese took our food and our income. Some days I wanted to kill myself. Wouldn’t you feel bad?” he asked, his lip trembling. “I am a fisherman, like my father and my grandfather. It’s who I am and what I do. How can a foreign country take that away from me?”
Oson’s fishing ground of Bajo de Masinloc is better known in international political circles as Scarborough Shoal, a reef in the South China Sea named after a British East India Company ship that ran aground there in 1784. From the air it has a flatiron look, a narrow triangle of rocks and reefs forming the thirty-mile perimeter of a lagoon with just one way in. Scarborough Shoal lies well within the Philippines’ UN-designated exclusive economic zone that stretches two hundred miles from the coastline. Under international law, the Chinese should have been nowhere near it.
But they were. China Coast Guard vessels arrived in 2012. There was standoff with the Philippines, which China won. Oson continued to fish there, but it was risky because a China Coast Guard vessel blocked the entrance to the calm lagoon where fishermen sought refuge in bad weather. Under Chinese protection, racketeers worked inside the lagoon, stripping the seabed of giant clams and other marine life to sell on black markets in Asia.
Oson’s government was powerless to fight Beijing, so it compared China to Nazi Germany and filed a complaint in an international court. Meanwhile, Beijing carried out a rapid construction program to take over other reefs, rocks, and islands with colonial-era names like Johnson, Mischief, and Thomas. Within a few years Beijing had reclaimed enough land to build seven military bases in one of the world’s most strategic waterways while no nation—not America, the Philippines, or any Asian country—nor the United Nations had taken any decisive step to stop it.
Had the ten governments of Southeast Asia been stronger and less corrupt; had they been given another fifty years to develop; had they been able to form a cohesive political and military bloc; had the US been less embroiled in the Middle East; had the much-heralded US Pivot to Asia of 2011 had time to take root; had a different style of US president been in office; had Europe not been so absorbed with its own problems; or had the many flows of history come together in a different way, there might have been a stronger balance against China’s extension of power.
But between 2013 and 2018, there was no such gathering of forces. Europe became weaker for Britain’s leaving. America’s Asians allies—Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand—had little unity of purpose, and certainly nothing that began to resemble the US-led military umbrella that united Europe. All Asian defense threads led to Washington, DC, where President Barack Obama believed that American global interests were better served through cooperation with China, even if that risked diminishing US power in Asia. On his watch, China succeeded in militarizing the South China Sea with its newly built island bases. Yes, US military action could take them all out in less than an hour. But what would that achieve? Then again, if the Pentagon were to wait another ten years while the Chinese military developed further, it may not even be able to do that.
“We must recognize a new reality,” Peter Dutton, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval Warfare College, told me. “Beijing controls this sea with its missiles and new airports. It now has the capacity to act against our interests of maintaining an open, international order.”
The South China Sea, which Oson calls the West Philippine Sea, is the main shipping route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It carries $5 trillion worth of trade a year. Its fishing produces 12 percent of the global catch and it is the lifeblood for Southeast Asia’s 620 million people and others far beyond. The South China Sea lies at the heart of Chinese global expansion. As China’s tentacles spread around the world, the South China Sea and the building of islands there has become a test of how far China can push the boundaries of international law and get away with it.
Oson’s plight over Scarborough Shoal, therefore, was one tiny stepping stone in Beijing’s overall master plan. In 2013, a year after instigating the Scarborough Shoal dispute, President Xi Jinping announced a plan for massive infrastructure building across Asia into Europe in what has become known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Five years later, in 2017, he hosted a summit in Beijing with twenty-nine heads of government and star attractions from the global autocracies, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. At a time when Western democracies were wrapped in their own problems, China took a global lead.
“Opening up brings progress while isolation results in backwardnesss,” declared Xi. “Global growth requires new drivers, development needs to be more inclusive and balanced, and the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be narrowed.”2 Xi was speaking not as the strongman leader of a one-party state, but as a visionary statesman. Flanked by autocratic allies, he pitted their values directly against those of Western liberal democracy.
For more than a decade, the concept of liberty as seen through Western eyes has been diminishing. According to the US democracy watchdog, Freedom House, it is a far cry from the hopes of the early 1990s. The Arab Spring failed. Russia has turned back towards authoritarianism. Turkey has abandoned the European vision. Illiberal governments are becoming increasingly assertive and illiberal political movements are on the rise. While democracy is deeply embedded within American culture, it is a relatively new idea in most parts of the world, barely two hundred years old, one that emerged from the violent regimes which originally forged the now developed West. In China’s eyes, through its millenia-long prism of history, the Western concept of democracy may well turn out to be just another cycle of history.
China’s insistence on sovereignty over the South China Sea, and the building of islands, are merely the starting point for its global ambitions carried out with values that oppose those of the western democracies. The question is, if Beijing is not challenged now, when should it be? And what will happen if it is not?
“If Chinese claims are imposed by force or coercion, it will undermine over half a century of work to build international law,” Gregory B. Poling, who runs the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “If China can claim a thousand miles from its shorelines because it has bigger boats and bigger guns, what will the Russians claim in the Arctic? What will the Iranians do in the Persian Gulf? Everyone will walk away from this system of global law, because if the Chinese are not bound by it, why should anyone else be?”
While Jurrick Oson—penniless, his dignity stripped—simmered with anger, China leveraged the Scarborough Shoal dispute in a way it had done for centuries in order to keep its subjects in line. The strategy may first have been laid out in the eleventh century BC by military analyst General T’ai Kung in his work The Six Secret Teachings on The Way of Strategy. The method is to use the “certainty of reward” and “inevitability of punishment” to develop a bond of trust between the victor and the conquered. It is also advocated in the more famous The Art of War by the fifth century BC general Sun Tzu, who stated, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” T’ai Kung’s teachings were passed down through the generations by word of mouth and only written down in the fourth century BC. What sets his work apart is that it is written from the perspective of a revolutionary aiming to overthrow a ruling regime, so it sits well with Chinese aspirations to overturn the American-led world order. One of T’ai Kung’s points, as we will see later, is to instill a mission with strong sense of purpose. In China’s case, this would be to protect the motherland against another Century of Humiliation, or, as the doctrine dictates, to follow the Chinese Dream.
Over Scarborough Shoal, China was about to deploy the teachings of both T’ai Kung and Sun Tzu, although to Western eyes, the strategy more resembled the Cold War technique of “salami slicing” whereby one side chips away little by little, but never enough to cause the other side to erupt.
When in July 2016 new Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte asked the American ambassador to Manila for help over Scarborough Shoal, he was told that the United States would not go to war over a fishing reef. So, after an initial bout of patriotic bluster, Duterte chose to cut a deal. He overturned his predecessor’s antagonism and echoes of Chinese Nazism, flew to Beijing with a planeload of businessmen signed deals for China to build infrastructure throughout the poorer part of his country, and declared that the future lay not with the United States but with China.
But he also attached a condition concerning Scarborough Shoal. As a senior Philippine diplomat told me, “The president made clear to the Chinese, ‘If you want to mess with Scarborough Shoal, you need to see the fishermen right. If you don’t do that, it’s not going to work because you’ll be crossing me.”
Within weeks, a Chinese official from the Bureau of Fisheries arrived in Masinloc, reaching out a hand of friendship and offering to buy all of the fishermen’s catch, thus guaranteeing the market price and a steady income to a community that could barely make ends meet. A delegate from the Masinloc Fishing association was taken to China, all expenses paid, to see how the modern fishing industry worked.
Soon afterward, Oson was told he could head out to Scarborough Shoal again. When I met him in early 2017, there was a spring in his step. He had just returned from a week at sea. A China Coast Guard vessel guarded the entrance to the lagoon, barring Oson from going in. But he could fish. There were no water cannons or helicopters and, in those few days, he earned ten times what he could with his taxi tricycle. Life was good. The higher politics of sovereignty and superpower rivalry were not for him. Duterte and China had fixed things, and that was what Masinloc needed. No longer did Oson want to go to war.
“Now that I can fish again, I can make money,” he said with a broad smile. “Melinda can come back and we can live as a family.” The Philippines had, in effect, surrendered the sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal to China, whose long-term plans for it were far from clear. The main cluster of new Chinese military bases lie four hundred miles to the south in the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. There are other new bases on the Paracel Islands five hundred miles to the west, which China disputes with Vietnam, whose fishermen have, like Oson, suffered Chinese attacks. At the northern edges of the South China Sea is arguably the most strategic island of them all, Dongsha, which is garrisoned by coast guard forces from Taiwan.
Scarborough Shoal’s geographical position could be crucial in China’s military planning. Some months after Duterte struck his deal, new satellite images showed increased Chinese activity on the shoal amid reports that Beijing was planning to build a radar station. Here was another salami slice. Oson would keep fishing, and his catch would have a guaranteed buyer, so he asked himself, Why bite the hand that feeds you? As for the United States, having allowed China to build all those island bases and having so many common interests in banking, climate change, and combating terrorism, why should it risk a fight over one little radar station?
I first traveled through these seas more than forty years ago as a teenage deckhand on a freighter carrying iron ore from Angola in Southern Africa to Japan in Northeast Asia. As part of a global supply chain in the 1970s, we sailed in rough seas round the Cape of Good Hope and through the Indian Ocean, edged slowly into the busy, narrow Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia, looped around Singapore, then headed out into the South China Sea, which sparkled with tropical sunlight, the air thick with humidity. This was the heart of Southeast Asia, once known as the Land Below the Winds because it lay beneath the typhoon belt of East Asia. I remember erratic winds whipping wave tops into a white swell as the huge propellers of our hundred-thousand-ton MV Chelsea Bridge bulk carrier took us north along these most vital of world shipping lanes.
We plied the same route as the Arab traders who centuries earlier had come to buy aromatic wood, bringing with them the teachings of Islam. Indians journeyed here too, with Buddhism, Hinduism, and such strength of personality that France aptly named its Southeast Asian colonies Indochina, the territory that lay between the vast countries of China and India. At the height of its colonial ambitions, Britain shipped Indian opium to China, forcing it ashore under a banner of free trade and international law underwritten by its gunboats. China regards its defeat by Britain in the First Opium War of 1839–42 as the start of its Century of Humiliation, and that is now central to just about every policy move it makes.
As we sailed north toward Yokohama on a vast expanse of sea with Vietnam to the west and the Philippines to the east, American and Soviet submariners played Cold War hide-and-seek with each other beneath the surface, just as Chinese submariners are doing now. We reached the East China Sea. Farther north lay the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, all rich with the history of naval battles and war. Here is a region where the theater of war is mostly defined by the sea and its islands, a different style of contest and thinking than in the European land wars of the last century where territory was fought over trench by trench and village by village.
While a hostile army raising a flag across a land border in a neighbor’s territory is likely to prompt a violent military response, China’s building a string of artificial island in the South China Sea, claiming it as its own, has been met mainly by diplomatic protests. On the other hand, the wrath of maritime warfare should not be underestimated. In 1945, the US did not invade Japan, but forced surrender with two nuclear strikes. The iconic Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington Ridge Park close to the Pentagon shows victorious US Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on a barren uninhabited rock. Iwo Jima itself is remote, in the middle of the western Pacific Ocean, a thousand or more miles from anywhere, but strategically positioned with Japan to the north, the Philippines to the south, and China due east. That particular battle in February and March 1945 cost sixty-eight hundred American lives in a war caused by a new Asian power with ambitions to oust the United States from its region.
The officers of my bulk carrier in the 1970s were mostly British, but the deck crew were Hong Kong Chinese. They had decorated their mess room with posters of the revolutionary Mao Zedong, who at the time was waging his destructive Cultural Revolution and shutting the country behind its bamboo curtain. As we approached Yokohama, the Chinese bosun told me that he would not be going ashore. “I hate Japanese,” he said. “I want to kill them.”
That was not just the long-ago view of a single Chinese seaman; the enmity continues today. China has not forgiven Japan for its invasion, its occupation in the 1930s, and the massacre at Nanjing. Memories of Japanese aggression stalk every corridor of power in Beijing.
The weather had turned cold and, alongside the Yokohama jetty, I ignored driving snow while I unfurled thick docking ropes, spellbound by my first sighting of the neon lights of an Asian port, a glitter that in the following decades spread from skyline to skyline of city to megacity, a statement that trade and wealth creation could prevail over historical grievances. That may no longer be the case, however. The issues that led to such a bloodied history lie swept under a carpet and are still unresolved.
Just over twenty years after docking at Yokohama, as China was emerging from its isolation, I worked as a BBC bureau chief in Beijing. A strange story emerged about bamboo scaffolding appearing inexplicably on an unknown islet in the South China Sea, hundreds of miles from the Chinese coastline. It was barely even an island, more a rock jutting a few inches above the surface. It turned out to be the colonially named Mischief Reef, part of the Spratly Island, a cluster of rocks, reefs, and island so obscure that President Reagan mistakenly referred to them as the Broccoli Islands.
Beijing argues that it has sovereignty over 90 percent of the 1.5-million-square-mile South China Sea. Mischief Reef is now a full-size military base. Together with six other reefs, it comprises a series of airstrips and harbors built on reclaimed land, bristling with hi-tech military hardware. These might be remote, inhospitable places, but they have become a lightning rod testing the intricate relationship between America, China, and the countries of Asia. Barely a day goes by now without one point of friction or another reaching the headlines.
The seas of Asia spread much farther. China has built its first official overseas military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa on the far western edges of the Indian Ocean. In 2017, in an unprecedented show of force in the Sea of Japan, the United States deployed three aircraft carrier groups against the North Korean missile threat. Beijing chose the Taiwan Strait, an unresolved trouble spot since 1949, to display its first aircraft carrier. Around a cluster of disputed and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, Beijing and Tokyo now play a dangerous maritime cat-and-mouse game that world leaders have warned could escalate at any time.
All of these seas are attached to nations with their own cultures, history, and ambitions: India, with its chaotic democracy; China, with its authoritarian juggernaut; Japan, risen from the ashes of Hiroshima to become the democratic bedrock of America’s regional domination; Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim country, its untidy new democracy struggling to blunt Islamic extremism, like the Philippines, and now torn between the West and China. Singapore, the tautly controlled trading city-state, fighting to stay neutral; Malaysia, once hailed as an Asian tiger but now fractured by corruption, ethnic tension, and the pull of Islam; and the weaker countries of Cambodia and Laos, already under China’s writ.
At the center of their stories lie the Chinese-occupied South China Sea islands, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and others. What China has achieved there has given it the confidence to press on to farther-flung parts of the world and what eventually unfolds around these islands will impact all our lives. In that respect, we may all someday be faced with the same decisions as Jurrick Oson and the fishing families of Masinloc.