Book reviews are the literary equivalent of visiting a buffet line that features 30 different dishes, but only being allowed to fill one small soup bowl, with no second helpings. There’s no good way to reduce a 200-, 300-, or 400-page book down to 800 or 1,000 words and do it justice. For that reason, rather than try to condense all of Daniel Yergin’s new (430-page!) book The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations into a single soup bowl, I will heartily recommend the book for its focus on a single topic: the South China Sea. 

Yergin does a better job of explaining the history and importance of the South China Sea than anything I’ve read and he does so by tracing it a map drawn 84 years ago by a “cartographic combatant.”

Yergin’s multi-chapter focus on the “world’s most critical waterway” makes sense because the South China Sea is in the news almost every day. Last week, China accused the U.S. of disguising the identity of military aircraft it operates over the disputed waterway. The South China Morning Post reported that U.S. Air Force planes are, according to a Chinese official, impersonating “the transponder code of civilian aircraft from other countries.” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also said, “We urge the US to immediately stop such dangerous provocations, to avoid accidents from happening in the sea and air.” 

The same story notes that last month, a U.S. surveillance plane flew through a declared no-fly zone while the Chinese military was conducting exercises in the Yellow Sea. That flight led to a protest from China’s defense ministry.

Before going further, let me acknowledge the breadth of Yergin’s reporting is impressive. Yergin—who won the Pulitzer Prize several years ago for his book, The Prize, and is now the vice-chair of IHS Markit
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–delves into the early days of the shale revolution, the conflict in Iraq, electric vehicles, and how natural gas pipelines are changing geopolitics. He also shows how natural gas has made Russia and China into major trading partners. China invested in Russia’s massive Yamal LNG project and the new Power of Siberia pipeline will send Russian gas to China for the next three decades.

Those are important issues. But the most interesting part of the New Map is about the South China Sea and how that contested stretch of ocean could become the site of an international conflict. Yergin traces the history back to the 1930s, when a French naval captain claimed the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea for France. But France’s claim to the region quickly evaporated. Today, China is claiming most of the South China Sea for itself. That claim is contested by Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Every year, some $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the South China Sea. That trade includes about a third of world LNG shipments. The South China Sea also produces about 10 percent of the world’s fish catch and about 40 percent of its tuna. Yergin explains that China’s claims to the South China Sea, including the Spratlys and the Paracel Islands, are rooted in a map drawn in 1936 by “a singular cartographic combatant” named Bai Meichu, who was “one of China’s most influential and respected geographers. His work was inspired not only by longitudes and latitudes but also by nationalist passion.” 

Yergin continues, saying that Meichu drew the “Nine-Dash Map” which is “at the heart of today’s struggle over the South China Sea.” That map, which is sometimes referred to a “long cow tongue” includes a nine-dash line that extends south from the Chinese mainland, and extends along the coast of Vietnam, to Indonesia and Malaysia, and then back north along the coast of the Philippines, and to the east of Taiwan. 

In 1930, Meichu produced a “Chinese National Humiliation Map” that was designed to help “common people to be patriotic.” Whatever Meichu’s intention, his maps became central to China’s identity and its desire to avenge the wrongs perpetrated against it by the British, the Japanese, and others. In 2013, according to Yergin, a prominent Chinese geographer said that Meichu’s Nine-Dash Map is “deeply engraved in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people” and that several generations of Chinese grade-school students have been taught that China’s territory includes the South China Sea. He further notes that passengers flying on Air China will find an inflight magazine that shows the outline of Meichu’s map “imprinted in a dark line on the map of the South China Sea, reaching all the way down to Malaysia and Indonesia.” 

During a recent interview on the Power Hungry Podcast, Yergin and I talked for nearly 10 minutes about the history of the Nine-Dash Map and the South China Sea. He told me “China imports 75 percent of its oil and a large part of that passes through those waters.” Yergin went on, saying that the South China Sea is the place “where the U.S. Navy and the Chinese navy could collide and there have been several near misses there. And the big worry, the big concern, the big fear, is that there sometime may not be a near miss. And what happens if there is some kind of collision or some kind of action that involves us and Chinese navies in that region? And given that the relationship between the U.S. and China is becoming much more confrontational, how do you resolve it?”

But the U.S. and China aren’t the only countries interested in the South China Sea and the potential for conflict in the region appears to be increasing. On Saturday, the South China Morning Post carried a story with this headline “In a U.S.-China war, whose side is Southeast Asia on?” On Sunday, Australian media reported that Indonesia was “on high alert” after a Chinese coast guard vessel “imposed itself in Indonesian waters, some 1500 kilometers from mainland China.” 

In short, the South China Sea is among the world’s most dangerous flashpoints. The New Map will help you understand how an old map made it so.



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