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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The Great Wall of Sand

China’s aggressive claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea have angered its Asian neighbours and raised fears of a showdown with the US.

“Hey, what are you guys doing this Saturday?” crew members of the US guided missile destroyer USS Lassen asked over the radio as it ploughed through the South China Sea last autumn. “We got pizza and wings. What are you guys eating?”

The questions were directed at the Chinese ship shadowing the Lassen as it moved into the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters claimed by Beijing off its newly constructed base on Subi Reef, a speck of land in the Spratly Islands. China has built a radar-
equipped weather station and stationed 200 troops there but its claim is disputed by several east Asian countries – and by the United States. The Lassen’s course was deliberately plotted to affirm the right to “freedom of navigation” in what Washington regards as an international maritime area through which any ship should be at liberty to sail.

After a short delay, the Chinese sailors responded to the questions from their US counterparts, talking about their home cities, their families and the ports they had visited. Then the two ships parted course.

The friendly conversation obscured a chilling fact: that these were crews of ships from two nations which, in some scenarios, are heading for an earth-shaking confrontation as they play out the “Thucydides Trap”, in which rising and status quo powers are bound to come into conflict along the lines of Athens and Sparta, as recorded by the ancient Greek historian. In this case, the protagonists are China and the US.

In 2012 Hillary Clinton, the then US secretary of state, said that America and China needed to “write a new answer to the age-old question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet”. A year later, after a US-China summit aimed at producing understanding between the two powers, the national security adviser Tom Donilon said that the reformulation of the relationship was “rooted in the observation . . . that a rising power and an existing power are in some manner destined for conflict”.

According to Graham Allison, a professor of political science at Harvard, armed hostilities have been the outcome in 12 out of 16 past confrontations of this type in recorded history. These include the long confrontation between the established power of France and the rising challenge of Britain in the early 18th century, as well as the wars between Germany and Russia, France and Britain between 1914 and 1945.

The immediate theatre for the showdown is the huge expanse of the East and South China Seas. China’s increasingly expansionist drive to assert sovereignty there has led to confrontations over the past five years with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, which regard waters and islands claimed by Beijing as their own. Early this month, China said it had sent four warships with helicopters, one supply ship and special forces troops to carry out an exercise in the South China Sea.

The US is deeply involved because of its security treaties with Japan and the Philippines, its restored relations with Vietnam and its role as the main military power in east Asia since 1945 – the US 7th Fleet, based in Japan, has between 60 and 70 ships, 300 aircraft and 40,000 navy and marine corps personnel. The Americans also have nearly 30,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea and an implicit undertaking to defend Taiwan if China were to threaten the island separated from the mainland since the Communist victory of 1949.

Admiral Harry B Harris, the US commander in the Pacific, has said that China “is clearly militarising the South China Sea . . . You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise,” and he insisted this spring that his fleet will increase operations to assert freedom of navigation in the same sea. Summit talks between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in late March and early April produced no agreement on the issue. A US aircraft carrier was subsequently refused entry to Hong Kong Harbour for a port visit on 15 April. The US then sent aircraft to fly by a disputed shoal off the Philippines where China appears to be on the verge of launching a new stage in its campaign of reclaiming reefs and islands that could act as a base in any open conflict.

Washington and Asian nations are also concerned about North Korea, whose nuclear policies have exposed Beijing’s inability to control its “little brother”. Although the Chinese government announced on 5 April that it was restricting some exports to its neighbour, it hesitates to cut off supplies of food and energy completely, for fear of causing instability across the border that might lead to reunification under the leadership of South Korea. All this makes the nations of the region look to the US as the guardian of their security, even as they seek to make the most of the economic relationship with China.

Other powers, including Australia, are concerned because of the importance they place on freedom of navigation, while China’s forceful defence of its fishing fleets has brought conflict this spring with Indonesia and possibly, in a murky episode at the end of March, also with Malaysia.

This is a huge region that is vital for the world’s economic health. Its manufacturing and trade have acted as drivers of growth since the emergence of Japan and the four “Tigers” – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – in the 1960s. With China having vaulted to second place among the world economies and Japan still in third place, east Asia as a whole accounts for a quarter of the world’s GDP.

The matters of sovereignty in dispute are trivial in themselves, involving strings of small, often uninhabited islands and reefs. The claims that China has been pressing are based on old maps or tales of allegiance dating back to a misty historical past. Yet this does not make them any less significant, with implications that play into concerns about confrontation involving not just China and the US, but the entire region. News in February that China appeared to have deployed two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers on one of the disputed islands added a new edge to fears that the build-up of forces and the lack of a diplomatic solution could boil over into open conflict.

***

Nationalism is on the rise in east Asia and national interests are becoming more deeply entren­ched. Amid a regional arms race, most countries are increasing their military spending. China’s military budget has been rising by 10 per cent a year as it builds up its “blue water” navy (capable of operating outside coastal waters in the wider Pacific), constructs a second aircraft carrier and develops its submarine and missile forces. Since 2000, it has added 41 new submarines to its navy and, at a big military parade in Beijing in September, the official commentary on the arms on show in Tiananmen Square boasted of missiles that the Chinese said could sink an aircraft carrier at the base the United States maintains on Guam, across the Pacific.

In Tokyo, Shinzo Abe’s government is pushing through changes to Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution to enable it to play a bigger military role in the region. Vietnam has acquired six submarines from Russia, which are due to be fully operational by 2017. Indonesia has ordered ten fighter jets from Russia, according to media reports in Jakarta. Military expenditure across the nations of south-east Asia (with the exception of Burma, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos) has risen rapidly from $14.4bn in 2004 and will reach an estimated $40bn this year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The forceful way in which China has advanced its maritime claims under the banner of the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation championed by its no-nonsense leader, Xi Jinping, has provoked responses from its neighbours, for all that they value their commercial relationships with the world’s second-largest economy.

Vietnam has put its forces on the border with China on high alert. The Philippines has been stirred to take an unusually martial attitude in response to Chinese claims in the South China Sea, acquiring additional ships and filing a suit against Chinese expansion there with the United Nations arbitration tribunal at The Hague. China has refused to recognise the suit or the tribunal’s competence, and said this month that its position was backed by three regional states – Brunei, Cambodia and Laos – and by Russia. But the UN ruled itself competent to deal with the case at the end of last year and a verdict is expected by early June. A judgment in favour of Manila would test Beijing’s readiness to abide by international rules or whether, in the words of Daniel Russel, the US assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, China is “prepared to be seen as an outlier that flouts international law”.

At the same time, historic animosities are being revived. Though each country is ruled by a communist party, China’s not very successful invasion of Vietnam in 1979 is not forgotten in its southern neighbour. Anti-Chinese riots broke out across Vietnam in 2014 after China deployed an oil exploration rig in waters claimed by both countries and after state TV broadcast video footage showing a Vietnamese fishing boat being rammed by a Chinese vessel and sinking.

The acute antagonism between China and Japan dates back to the humiliation of the Qing dynasty by the rising power in their war of 1894-95. It was then hugely increased by the ruthless occupation of much of the mainland by Japanese troops after they launched a full-scale war in 1937, epitomised by the Rape of Nanjing, in which up to 200,000 people died. The way in which some Japanese politicians honour their country’s dead at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which memorialises over 1,000 convicted war criminals, is a cause of constant complaint by Beijing. The “Patriotic Education Campaign”, conducted in China since the 1990s, presents Japan as the main villain, one that plays a leading role in China’s narrative of its “Century of Humiliation” before the Communists won power in 1949.

The current confrontation between China and Japan, which comes amid falling Japanese exports to the mainland and reviews of investment plans, followed Tokyo’s nationalisation in 2012 of eight uninhabited islands and outcrops in the sea that were previously under private ownership. That set off anti-Japan demonstrations in a dozen Chinese cities. Japanese shops and cars were smashed and Japanese flags torn up. Beijing then pushed its claim that the islands, known to the Japanese as the Senkakus and to the Chinese as the Diaoyus, were Chinese because imperial voyagers landed there in the 14th century. They lie south-west of Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa, east of China’s mainland and off the north-western coast of Taiwan, near strategic shipping lanes and rich fishing grounds, as well as possible oil and gas reserves. Japan insists it owns the islands and there is nothing to discuss, accusing Beijing of a “forceful, coercive attempt to change the status quo”.

Foreign ministry officials in Tokyo have noted an escalation of China’s maritime and aerial probing around the islands this year. “The situation in the East China Sea is getting worse,” an official told the Financial Times in January. An armed Chinese naval vessel sailed into waters around the islands for the first time last December, and an intelligence-gathering ship was seen in the area at the same time. The rare meetings between Abe and Xi have been awkward, and there has been no word of the installation of a promised hotline to deal with accidental clashes. Last year China commissioned four new gas platforms close to the median line with Japan in the East China Sea and sent research vessels on 22 missions there, according to the Japanese foreign ministry.

Moves by the Abe government to loosen constraints on Japan’s military imposed after defeat in 1945 arouse concern in China, where Communist Party newspapers warn of a “nightmare scenario” if the constitutional restrictions on military activity are relaxed. Beijing accuses Tokyo of going “against the tides of history”. In Japan, a survey by the Pew Research Centre found that China was the second-biggest cause of fear among the population, after terrorism. Abe has bolstered security ties with Vietnam and signed a security pact with the Philippines, following this up with a joint naval exercise. In response to Tokyo’s move, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, mused to reporters: “I wonder what Japan has to do with the South China Sea.” Last month, Prime Minister Abe joined the US to accuse China of militarising the South China Sea.

Besides jostling with China for regional influence, both by expanding investment in south-east Asia and by trying to build bridges with South Korea to counter Beijing’s charm offensive there, Japan feels a very direct interest in freedom of navigation, given the volume of its trade and energy supplies that transit through the South China Sea. It is in talks to transfer anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft and radar technology to the Philippines. The Japanese are not alone in their concerns. In February, worried about its shipping routes, Australia announced a big increase in planned military spending, especially on the navy. Canberra is now weighing whether to send a warship on a freedom-of-navigation exercise similar to that of the USS Lassen.

***

The regional dynamics are at their most complex when one heads south. China claims much of the South China Sea using a map dating from 1947, which laid out historical claims in the form of a nine-dash line defining its area of sovereignty. This conflicts with claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan. Even more so than waters off the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, this sea is a vital shipping lane for $5trn in trade annually: one-third of global maritime traffic, carrying oil and raw materials to Asia and Asian consumer goods to the world. It also contains rich fishing grounds and potential energy and mineral reserves beneath the seabed.

China’s intervention has greatly increased the stakes in what had been a set of competing claims among south-east Asian nations. As Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, put it in March in a Wall Street Journal interview about Chinese expansionism, “When you are the biggest participant in the game, and you do the same as other countries, the consequences are on a different scale.” China has long-standing claims to the Paracel, Spratly and Pratas Islands as well as the Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal off the Philippines. More recently, it has conducted a programme of building up reefs in the sea, up to 800 kilometres from the mainland, to turn them into small islands. Seven have been finished or are near completion. China claims the rights to territorial waters stretching out 19 kilometres from the “Great Wall of Sand”, built on previously uninhabited reefs and now staffed with Chinese military personnel.

Beijing, which began constructing “fishermen’s shelters” in the South China Sea in the 1990s, says its new bases are for humanitarian purposes, primarily to rescue those who get into trouble, but recent photographs show fighter aircraft deployed on the largest of the artificial islands in the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Pentagon sources said evidence from satellite imaging in February showed Chinese HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles, with a range of 125 kilometres or more, on Woody Island in the Paracels; China has said it will not militarise the sea; and though it did not confirm the US report, which was backed up by Taipei, it said any country had the right to take defence measures on its territory. Beijing does not give out such information, but the defence department in Washington has estimated that the construction covers at least 800 hectares. Five of the sites, it said in a report on China’s military power, could be used for surveillance systems, harbours, an airfield and logistic support.

***

China aims to establish “facts on the ground” or, in this case, at sea, projecting its regional power in a way that other nations may challenge but that they will not be able to turn back. This is in keeping with the higher profile in foreign affairs adopted by the Xi Jinping administration, which took over in Beijing in 2012-13. The time when China followed Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide your brilliance and bide your time” has passed. Xi, China’s most powerful hands-on leader since Mao Zedong, is pushing an agenda of centralised control and international expansion, undeterred by the slowing economy and multiple problems in the form of high debt, deflation, excess industrial capacity, the halting pace of much-needed structural reforms and an environment crisis.

A critical element of Xi’s “dream” is the projection of Chinese influence around the globe – or, as he put it in a speech in 2014, the need for China to pursue “great-power diplomacy with special Chinese characteristics”. This ranges through the grand scheme of the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure programme through trade for south-east and central Asia and on to the underwriting of nuclear power stations in Britain. Beijing has launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as an alternative to the Asian Development Bank, winning wide backing (including from the UK) despite US opposition. China has become Vladimir Putin’s best source of support, with big, long-term contracts for Russian gas as well as finance for projects such as a 7,000-kilometre high-speed rail link from Moscow to Beijing.

Though China devotes a smaller proportion of GDP to its military budget than does the US (or the UK), modernisation of the 2.5 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a big part of Xi’s programme. In addition to sitting as general secretary of the Communist Party and state president, Xi chairs the Central Military Commission, which unveiled a streamlining of the PLA command structure this year and is fast developing China’s capabilities in submarines, missiles and cyber-warfare. This spring, he appeared in uniform as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

In this calculus, the most immediate sphere for China’s power projection has been the one closest to its 14,500-kilometre coastline in the South and East China Seas. But the immediate effect has been to alarm other regional states, which are less than charmed by the thinking, expressed in 2010 by the then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”. This has led the smaller nations to seek shelter under the US strategic umbrella. Relations between the Philippines and China have become virtually frozen since a standoff in April-June 2012 that led to China seizing the Scarborough Shoal. Manila bolstered its small navy with purchases from the US and re-emphasised the defence treaty between the two countries, as well as submitting its suit to the UN tribunal.

The US defence secretary, Ashton Carter, has told his counterpart in Manila that Washington’s pledge to defend its ally is “ironclad”. Visiting Tokyo in June, President Benigno Aquino said he was reminded of how, in the late 1930s, “Germany was testing the waters and . . . nobody said stop.” A new defence pact in 2014 permitted deployment of US forces in the Philippines, and the Aquino administration has offered the US eight bases, two of them on an island near the South China Sea. In 2015 more than 100 US navy ships docked in the former US base at Subic Bay, and two nuclear-powered stealth submarines made visits in the first two weeks of this year.

The maritime quarrels spread to Indonesia at the end of March after eight Chinese fishermen were detained by a patrol vessel while trawling off the Natuna Islands, which lie across the southernmost section of the South China Sea claimed by China, over 2,500 kilometres from its southern coast. A Chinese coastguard vessel entered the area to recover the men’s ship. An Indonesian official in charge of maritime security said China’s action had created “a new ball game” that needed close attention from south-east Asian governments, and called Beijing’s claims to sovereignty in the area “fake”. The government in Jakarta then announced that it would deploy more troops to the islands, put in more patrol boats and strengthen its naval base there.

A US-Indonesia “action plan” envisages expanded military co-operation. Indonesia has protested against the way in which the “nine-dash line” appears to cover the Natuna Islands, and says it wants to hold regular naval exercises with the US near the archipelago in waters that the International Energy Agency says hold rich gas reserves. Indonesia and the US have also carried out joint maritime exercises involving surveillance and patrol aircraft.

At the same time, there was confusion about a reported incursion into Malaysian waters by 82 Chinese fishing boats; Malaysia’s national security minister appeared to confirm the reports, and said three ships from the Maritime Enforcement Agency had been sent to investigate. But then the defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said there had been no trespass and “our waters are safe”. The People’s Republic of China has stepped up its investments in Malaysia over the past year and the government in Kuala Lumpur has been keen to maintain warm relations and ensure Chinese purchases of assets that it is selling off to reduce Malaysia’s debt burden.

Vietnam has reacted to China’s expansion by developing a dialogue with a former enemy: US naval ships pay frequent port calls. Carter and his Vietnamese counterpart, Phùng Quang Thanh, signed a “joint vision statement on defence relations” in June last year. The US is supplying Hanoi with coastguard patrol vessels. And Singapore signed an enhanced defence co-operation agreement with the US in December.

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As Xinhua News Agency warned that such developments could push the regional situation “to the brink of war”, the foreign ministry in Beijing questioned whether “military deployment and regional militarisation by the US [was] in line with the aspiration shared by countries in the region”. President Obama points to the region’s strategic importance, but some Chinese officials question what the US is doing there, given that it is not an Asian power. One answer is that, as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore used to say, the region needs China economically but also needs the US strategically to maintain a balance.

The problem is that neither of the two leading powers has a properly thought-out policy towards the other. China and the US know they need a degree of co-operation but also want to hedge their bets to defend their own positions. There is a mutual lack of trust, complicated by the network of overlapping regional differences in a part of the world that lacks a strategic system to resolve disputes. The Obama administration’s declaration in 2011 of a “Pacific Pivot” to reorientate its foreign and strategic policy towards the Asia-Pacific naturally aroused China’s concern. As well as being hemmed in by the chain of islands running south from the Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines which hems in the Chinese navy, Beijing faces the prospect of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), promoted by Washington to create a free-trade zone whose liberal economic rules would bar China. At least some regional leaders see the pact as essential to what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong calls “an overall substantive relationship” between the United States and Asia, because “without the interest in a broad range of mutual co-operation, America is just another country which has some claim or makes some assertion”.

Although the US “pivot” (since renamed a “rebalance”) has not been completely realised and the TPP deal is yet to be approved by national legislatures (among them the US Congress), the fear of containment – allied with the Xi administration’s desire to extend Chinese influence, including its alternative to the TPP – will prompt China to continue to press where it sees opportunities as it seeks to displace the US as the dominant power in east Asia. Washington’s policy towards the region has been hesitant but it seems to be adopting a tougher line. This was shown by the Lassen’s voyage and Obama’s meeting with leaders of the Asean grouping of nations in California in February to develop a cohesive response to China’s expansion in the South China Sea. The final statement from the consensus-seeking organisation of south-east Asian states was as cautious as usual, but it stated the importance of freedom of navigation, which Washington has made its central theme.

To date, the two big players and the associated states have managed to avoid hurtling into conflict, yet none has abandoned its position in the interests of a settlement. The ‘‘Thucydides Trap” may not be inevitable but it will continue to hang over a region of 14 countries that represents an area of critical importance for the prosperity and peace of the globe.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” (Polity Press) and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 12 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump