On Dangerous Ground: America’s Century in the South China Sea
By Gregory B. Poling
Oxford University Press, 2022, 336 pp.
As the world worries about whether China will attack Taiwan, Poling shows that Beijing has already decisively changed the balance of power in Asia without an effective U.S. response, by establishing military bases on seven enormous manmade islands in the South China Sea and crowding out the navies and fishing fleets of regional neighbors. He charts a masterful course through the history and politics of the region, and the tortured history of the law of the sea, to explain the origins of the territorial disputes that China has now effectively resolved by force. The stakes today involve not just control of undersea oil and gas reserves, fisheries, and commercial sea-lanes but also the viability of the troubled U.S.-Philippine alliance and even the global legal principle of freedom of the seas. Stepped-up U.S. “freedom of navigation” operations by the U.S. Navy have not effectively defended any of these interests. Poling proposes that the United States build a coalition to press China to compromise on fishing rights, joint management of the environment, and measures to avoid accidents among crowds of armed ships. But he acknowledges that it is unlikely that China will see any reason to cooperate.