As Humphrey Hawksley points out in this fine new book, the history of Asia is as much a story about contested water as Europe’s is one about contested land. China has a coastline of approximately 9,000 miles. To the east its great rival Japan shelters under a US security umbrella and remains a well-armed contender for regional dominance. Smaller countries such as South Korea also enjoy defence ties with the USA, as does Taiwan, which remains a thorn in China’s side. China’s geostrategic confinement aggravates painful memories of the 19th century, when the country’s sovereignty was trammelled by Western states.
China was the dominant global maritime power long before Magellan sailed east. Years later, it continued to enjoy regional dominance, until the British built steamboats that could sail against the current, allowing them to sweep up the Yangtze River all the way to Nanjing. Hawksley quotes a professor at Guangzhou’s Jinan University, who told him that you ‘cannot overestimate the impact of the Opium Wars’; it was the first time that the Chinese learned that the international world order was unfair.
Today the Chinese aspire to put their own imprint on it. If the USA and China do come to blows, the most likely flashpoint is the South China Sea. The Chinese have been extending their control there for some years and constructing military bases. For them, this is