Order, Contestation and Ontological Security-Seeking in the South China Sea.

AuthorHayton, Bill

Order, Contestation and Ontological Security-Seeking in the South China Sea. By Anisa Heritage and Pak K. Lee. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. E-book: 265pp.

Why do the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United States care about the South China Sea? Most explanations are rooted in the economic and strategic "goods" provided by control of its waters. In these accounts, Beijing desires to defend its coastline, claims to economic resources and access to sea-lanes while Washington is focused on protecting its strategic access through the sea and the autonomy of its allies and partners. The authors of this book emphasize another explanation: the importance of the South China Sea for both states to "validate their own national identities" (p. 5) in a contest between "competing order-building projects" (p. 4).

Following on from other scholars, Anisa Heritage and Pak K. Lee have borrowed the notion of "ontological security" from the realm of psychology to explain the behaviour of states. To be ontologically secure, both individuals and states must, in the view of Caterina Kinnvall and Jennifer Mitzen, "have a sense of biographical continuity and wholeness that is supported and recognised in and through their relations with others" (p. 12). From this, Heritage and Lee argue that China needs "to affirm its national identity as a 're-emerging power' after suffering from a 'collective historical trauma' for more or less 100 years" (p. 13) while the United States "perceives an imminent existential threat to its established identity" (p. 14) if it loses its hegemonic position.

Chapter One introduces the book's themes with brief introductions to both ontological security and the South China Sea dispute. Chapter Two delves more deeply into questions of international order formation, the recognition of orders by other states and of state-led narratives justifying particular international orders. Chapter Three addresses the domestic background to US order-building in Asia and is primarily an account of rising anxiety about communism in the United States after the Second World War. Chapter Four covers the arguments within the United States over the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the doctrine of "freedom of navigation".

Chapter Five addresses China's challenge to the existing order in and around the South China Sea. Sadly, it begins with an uncritical recitation of Beijing's traditional tropes with no mention of how they...

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