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Who Owns the South China Sea? Politics of Knowledge and Evidential Claims Making

Global Education Colloquium

October 21, 2014
Bill Hayton, Independent Journalist

The South China Sea appears to be on the verge of conflict. In the past two years, Chinese Coastguard ships have rammed their Vietnamese rivals, blockaded Philippine outposts, disrupted Malaysian oil surveys and threatened Indonesian fisheries protection vessels. The Chinese government claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the vast majority of the Sea while its southern neighbors assert that all or some of the islands in the Sea rightfully belong to them. This presentation will locate the origins of the disputes in the nationalist anxiety that marked the confused transition from empire to republic in China and the processes of decolonization in Southeast Asia. It will show how the first territorial claims were provoked by the commercial exploitation of bird droppings and then how the lure of hydrocarbons combined with the adoption of a new UN Convention on the Law of the Sea led to the occupation of almost every feature in the Sea. The presentation will tell the often bizarre stories of how the rival claims came about, examine the evidence for them and discuss whether they can ever be reconciled.

About the Speaker

Bill Hayton is the author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia to be published by Yale University Press in the fall of 2014. His book Vietnam: Rising Dragon was published by Yale in 2010 and well received. He currently works as a journalist for BBC News in London, specializing in Southeast Asian affairs. During 2013 he spent a year embedded with the state radio and TV service in Myanmar attempting to persuade the former military regime to introduce pluralism into broadcasting, with predictably mixed results. In 2006-7 he was the BBC reporter in Vietnam. Prior to that he focused on European affairs and the Middle East, writing and reporting on the Balkans, Yemen and Iran among other places.