Book Review: 'Asian Waters: Chinese Expansion and the Shifting Balance of Power' by Humphrey Hawksley

China’s re-emergence as an economic powerhouse with the diplomatic, military, and political consequences that entails is one of the great stories of the first half of the Twenty First Century. Her economic development is a mesmerising spectacle, bringing in its wake huge domestic social change and political challenges for her rulers. For the rest of us China’s increasing external focus presents enormous diplomatic risks as well as opportunity.

As a vast country, China is always sensitive about her borders, ever anxious to extend her direct and indirect sphere of influence. Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong, in different ways, are all examples of her resolve and determination in this area, as she seeks to exert greater control.

North Korea alone stands as a border country where China is willing to countenance direct foreign participation, anxious, as she is to avoid the collapse of the tiny totalitarian state with the vast refugee migration crisis that could bring. With the western world largely focussed on Vladimir Putin’s Russia much of what China is doing is significantly under-reported, which is why Asian Waters by the veteran BBC correspondent Humphrey Hawksley is a very timely corrective.

Hawksley, who has reported on the region for decades, delivers a sure footed and compelling analysis of how the Asia-Pacific region is evolving, from the development of military bases on far flung islands to the tensions over sovereignty of vast areas of ocean rich in minerals and oil.

China is developing her military capacity, investing in cyber technology, and is notably investing in her maritime capability. The acquisition of air craft carriers may be controversial in certain quarters of Whitehall, but in the corridors of power in Beijing operating them is a no-brainer, a fact India has noticed. It is developing a carrier programme of her own.

Today, as has always been the case, control of the sea-lanes brings access to the world.

China is canny also enough to realise economic power is often more effective than hard military power. All across the Asia-Pacific region and Africa she has invested heavily in businesses, plant, infrastructure and land. Economic success brings economic clout. You do not need to conquer a country if you can buy its land. This was a lesson learned decades ago when China invested heavily in buying Australian minerals.

Hawksley charts China’s rise as a modern economic powerhouse and its emergence as a world player, increasingly challenging the United States’ dominance on the world stage. At the heart of China sits its anti-democratic one party political system. President Xi Jinping has recently moved to consolidate his hold on power and to extend indefinitely his time in office. There is no example anywhere where indefinite rule by one person ends well. For an increasingly powerful and assertive China the health and stability of government in this great country matters, and affects, us all – not just its own citizens.

Humphrey Hawksley presents us with a very readable and incisive view of what has happened and what is happening. It is a book that will be of as much interest to a person with an amateur interest in the region as it will be to professionals and experts.‎

Asian Waters: Chinese Expansion and the Shifting Balance of Power, Humphrey Hawksley, Duckworth, £20