What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more

How Will the South China Sea Disputes Be Resolved?

August 9, 2012, 10:55 AM

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?

Follow Ali Wyne on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo Credit: Frank Fischbach/Shutterstock.com


How Will the South China Se...

Newsletter: Share: