Disputes About Disputes: Understanding the South China Sea

Bill Hayton, Chatham House

Steve Chan. China’s Troubled Waters: Maritime Disputes in Theoretical Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 250 pp. $100 (cloth).

Do Thanh Hai. Vietnam and the South China Sea: Politics, Security and Legality. New York: Routledge, 2017. 262 pp. $136 (cloth); $44 (e-book).

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The two books under review here demonstrate some of the diversity of writing within the discipline of international relations. In China’s Troubled Waters: Maritime Disputes in Theoretical Perspectives, political scientist Steve Chan, following Kant, describes his style as “nomothetic,” “which emphasizes attention to classes of events rather than specific episodes” (vii). Strategic and defense studies scholar Do Thanh Hai’s Vietnam and the South China Sea: Politics, Security and Legality is an example of what Chan calls the “idiographic approach,” focusing “on the more unique or specific aspects of the situation” (vii). Chan wants to be able to generalize and compare, and he explicitly eschews narratives of “who did what to whom.” Hai, on the other hand, is keen to make clear that it is China who did something to Vietnam. The most obvious criticism to make of his book is that it is written from an overtly Vietnamese perspective. That is a weakness, but also potentially a draw for those interested in the formulation of Vietnamese policy. Chan writes from an ostensibly neutral position, but, as we shall see, his analysis is rooted within a Chinese world view...