On Dangerous Ground: America's Century in the South China Sea.

AuthorSutter, Robert

On Dangerous Ground: America's Century in the South China Sea. By Gregory B. Poling. New York City, New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. E-version: 305pp.

Greg Poling has written a book that anyone serious about understanding the background, status and implications of the South China Sea dispute will need to read carefully and retain for further reference. Using analytical skills to support judgements based on behaviour rather than rhetoric, Poling discerns prevailing trends involving US policy and the often-tortuous path followed by successive US administrations to preserve Washington's interests in this critical waterway. The stakes today, with escalating Sino-US rivalry and Beijing's ever more commanding control over the South China Sea, are seen as more important than ever.

The author's history of American policy and practice provides ample treatment of the various claimants in the South China Sea since the nineteenth century. China's policy and behaviour get special attention. Also highlighted is the role played by the Philippines America's former colony and strategic ally in US policy calculations.

The book depicts US interests in the South China Sea over the years focusing on two areas: first, "freedom of the seas"; and second, balancing commitments to allies involved in the South China Sea disputes with its interest in avoiding entanglement in the arguments of various allies and other claimants. Thus, out of the five chapters on the history of US policy in the South China Sea, two chapters, Two and Five, are related to freedom of the seas. They cover evolving American positions on maritime issues during the protracted international negotiations and debates culminating in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) signed in 1982.

Chapter One provides a review of US policy and actions in the South China Sea in the 150 years prior to the main focus of the volume, "America's Century", beginning in the 1950s. It also analyses the vagueness of China's claims in the South China Sea prior to the end of the Second World War. In particular, it reveals the idiosyncratic circumstances reflecting limited knowledge and flawed understandings that led to the Republic of China's creation of a map in the late 1940s, complete with the dashed lines, that continue to provide the basis for China's current claims to most of the South China Sea.

The subsequent chapters discuss developments in more detail in chronological order since...

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