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How Will the South China Sea Disputes Be Resolved?

There’s growing concern that tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea could escalate into a military confrontation between China and its neighbors—a confrontation, many argue, that would inexorably draw in the United States.  Bonnie Glaser, a leading figure on U.S.-China relations, warned this April that “[t]he risk of conflict in the South China Sea is significant,” and cites three scenarios that could compel a U.S. military response: (1) “a clash stemming from U.S. military operations within China’s EEZ [exclusive economic zone] that provokes an armed Chinese response,” (2) “conflict between China and the Philippines over natural gas deposits,” and (3) “[d]isputes between China and Vietnam over seismic surveys or drilling for oil and gas.”  Late last month, the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that “[a]lthough major conflict is unlikely,” absent “a mechanism to mitigate or de-escalate incidents…tensions in the South China Sea could all too easily be driven to irreversible levels”—an ominous, if not fully clear, proposition. But is a military confrontation the only plausible outcome?  

  • China’s rise has already caused more regional counterbalancing than it would’ve expected, and it has little desire to take steps that would drive its neighbors further into America’s embrace.  Furthermore, despite over two years of speculation, it still isn’t clear if the leadership regards the South China Sea as a “core interest,” on par with, say, Tibet or Taiwan.  Taylor Fravel, professor of political science at MIT, noted this March that “no senior Chinese leader has ever publicly described the South China Sea” in this way.
  • While China’s neighbors, especially the Vietnam and the Philippines, don’t want to concede their territorial claims, they understand that a confrontation with China would be foolish in the extreme.  
  • The U.S. and China don’t want to undermine the hard work that they’ve done over the better part of the past decade to forge a stable working relationship.  Nor do they want to take the risk of going from intense competitors to open antagonists, a risk that would increase considerably if they engaged in such a confrontation.

So what are the options short of a clash at sea?

  • Robert Beckman, director of the National University of Singapore’s Center for International Law, offers one answer: “[a]s recognized many years ago by the late Deng Xiaoping, the only viable way to deal with the intractable territorial sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea is to set aside the disputes and jointly develop the resources.”
  • Robert Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor, envisions “a purer form of conflict, limited to the naval realm,” whereby “countries will be content to jockey for position with their warships on the high seas, while making competing claims for natural resources.”
  • Robert Haddick, managing editor of Small Wars Journal, answers this question with one of his own: what if China is engaged in “‘salami-slicing’, the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change?...Washington may conclude that the only politically viable response is to encourage the small countries to more vigorously defend their rights, even if its risks conflict, with the promise of U.S. military backup.”

The “rules of the road” in the South China Sea are likely to emerge ad hoc, in large part depending on complex deliberations within the Chinese policy establishment.  Despite the tendency to discuss countries as though they’re monolithic actors—an analytically useful but necessarily simplistic formulation—it’s far from clear that there’s a single Chinese policy on proceeding.  Indeed, as an earlier ICG report explains, China’s maritime policy results from interactions between “eleven ministerial level government agencies, under which there are five law enforcement agencies and private actors.”What do you think the final outcome(s) will be in the South China Sea?

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Photo Credit: Frank Fischbach/Shutterstock.com

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