Ramming into fishing boats, building artificial islands, and targeting rival warships with fire-control radar are all strategies currently being used by China to expand its influence and control in the South China Sea. Fortunately, none of these actions have sparked a great power war in the region. But what is the threshold at which direct military conflict might occur?

To fully understand the risks, we first must consider the forces driving this regional power struggle. The disputed area in the South China Sea includes water and island chains, meaning there are no well-defined boundaries because of overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones. China is competing against five other countries – Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam – for sovereign control over the contested areas that contain natural resources, including oil and gas reserves and numerous fish stocks. The desire to maximize economic gain motivates the territorial expansion.

This regional competition is not only about resources. China is also striving to become a regional hegemon, seeking to overcome American influence in the region. China subscribes to an offensive realist worldview, in which it views international relations in zero-sum terms and fears United States dominance in the Western Pacific. Understandably, this philosophy makes diplomacy and compromise challenging.

The disagreements, though, are not new. They draw on nationalist tensions and historical documents, like ancient Chinese maps claiming large portions of the territory that are only becoming relevant now because of Chinese incursion in the area.

The United States also has a stake in the dispute, given its economic, military, and political connections in the region. For example, the United States has defensive commitments to Taiwan. These obligations require the United States to play an active role in East Asian security, supporting its allies and deterring conflict. The South China Sea is also a major trade route for ships that deliver goods to the United States. If conflict were to erupt, it would inhibit the United States’ ability to sustain its trade partnerships in the region, likely triggering a major recession. Although the United States attempts to promote peace, at times the United States appears to be provoking China by using military ships to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations near disputed islands.

The South China Sea conflict is an important area of study because it typifies common themes found in global politics: dangerous power transitions, revisionist states, and the role of international law in regulating interstate behavior. As with other international disagreements, this dispute impacts more countries than just those directly involved in the regional territorial dispute. What may begin as a purely regional dispute could escalate to a global conflict, causing untold suffering and massive economic disruptions, from countries severing trade routes.

To assess any geopolitical issue, policy makers must divine the motives of more than just their respective country. While the goals of their country remain paramount, the most expeditious plan comes from understanding the strategic desires of other countries. But this process is difficult for the South China Sea because there are many actors with multiple competing interests. Nevertheless, some basic proposals standout. First, the United States should increase U.S. Coast Guard and Navy presence via cutters and Littoral Combat Ships. Second, since diplomatic negotiations with China will likely be unsuccessful without regional influence, the United States should continue bolstering regional alliances and punish intransigent leaders, like Filipino President Duterte, if necessary. Finally, the United States should encourage and promote respect for international law through diplomatic summits that aim to deescalate disputes and prevent conflict. While these steps are only partial solutions, they will meaningfully contribute to stability in the region.

 

Image:

Southeast Asia true colour satellite image – Satellite image – Map . Photograph. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/306_521298/1/306_521298/cite. Accessed 30 Mar 2017.
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