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