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In this year’s Preventive Priorities Survey, foreign policy experts ranked an armed confrontation over disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea between China and one or more claimants as a top conflict to watch in 2020. As one of the world’s most strategically significant waterways, the South China Sea is home to three different types of enduring international disputes: disputes over claimed territory, disputes over claimed waters, and disputes over the types of maritime activities that are permissible in these waters under international law. For decades, Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have each claimed land features and waters in the South China Sea. China, however, has adopted a broad interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and, as a result, has operated unilaterally to claim expansive territorial and maritime rights in the region, as indicated by its oblique nine-dash line.
Beginning in 2014, Beijing transformed seven reefs and rocks into artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, building military-grade airstrips and port facilities and installing major weapons systems. It has since continued to militarize these islands. Taken together, these positions appear to be an effort by China to dominate the waterway and claim it as its own, despite the fact that an international tribunal ruled many of its activities to be illegal. Although the United States does not claim any territory or maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, it opposes China’s militarization of the area as well as its interpretation of UNCLOS. It has an abiding interest in ensuring that the South China Sea remains an open part of the global commons—to permit the free flow of commercial and military traffic—and that the balance of power in the Western Pacific does not tip precipitously in China’s favor.
However, the United States' footing in the South China Sea has faltered while China's power has grown. China has increasingly interfered with freedom of navigation, warning military and commercial vessels away from its artificial island bases. It has also harassed vessels belonging to regional claimants, conducted maritime surveys of dubious legality, and attempted dangerous maneuvers with its own military craft. These activities could lead to accidental or inadvertent escalation. Beijing could interfere with normal operations by other regional claimants, possibly while operating its own vessels dangerously. It could further militarize the Spratly Islands by deploying more military platforms; it could also begin building on the Scarborough Shoal, which it seized from the Philippines in 2012. Alone, other South China Sea claimants lack the ability to fully resist Chinese pressure. Although the Department of Defense conducts routine freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to demonstrate non-recognition of China’s illegal maritime claims, inconsistent U.S. signals of support continue to make it difficult for claimants to calibrate their responses.
The United States cannot reverse China’s militarization of the South China Sea; Beijing has succeeded in shifting the balance of power in this waterway in its favor. Washington can, however, return to a coalition-based strategy that aims to keep the South China Sea open and to reduce the likelihood that the long-simmering disputes spiral into full-blown conflict. To do so, the United States should recommit itself to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional organizations at the highest levels, as well as to subtle bilateral diplomacy with countries that oppose China’s muscular maritime approach but want to retain the freedom to work with Beijing in other areas, like Vietnam. The United States should continue to shift more Foreign Military Financing to Asia to help build regional claimant capacity (the overwhelming majority is still Middle East-focused) and work more closely with allies like Australia and Japan to make sure that aid is delivered efficiently. It should also coordinate with regional claimants to publicize violations of international law—illegal surveys, freedom of navigation obstruction—when they do occur. Washington should consider issuing specific warnings to dissuade China from building on and militarizing new features, such as the Scarborough or Second Thomas Shoals, as such warnings have deterred Chinese President Xi Jinping from similar actions in the past. These measures are all designed to work with regional claimants to reduce the power that China can derive from its island bases and to limit its further expansion.
But the United States will also have to work with China to reduce dangers. China continues to expand its regional military presence, year by year, and will likely increase its South China Sea operations. Washington and Beijing have agreed to some preliminary risk-reduction measures to reduce the chances of a clash between them, but should improve their crisis management mechanisms and codes of conduct for naval operations. When the world’s preeminent power seeks to keep the South China Sea open, while its ascendant rival prefers to control it as its own, the risk of conflict is likely to pervade for years to come.
About the Preventive Priorities Survey
Since 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action (CPA) has conducted an annual survey of foreign policy experts for their collective assessments on contingencies that represent the greatest risk to U.S. interests. This year, CPA began soliciting contingencies in October 2019, narrowing down a list of possible conflicts from nearly one thousand suggestions to thirty contingencies deemed likely and potentially harmful to U.S. interests. In early November, CPA sent the survey to nearly six thousand experts and received about five hundred responses. The survey results were scored according to their rankings and the contingencies were sorted into one of three preventive priority tiers (I, II, III) according to their placement on CPA’s risk assessment matrix.
The results reflect the expert opinion of respondents at that time. As such, it should be viewed as a snapshot assessment. Recognizing this, CPA tracks ongoing conflicts, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with the Global Conflict Tracker.
View the full results of the Preventive Priorities Survey to see which other contingencies were deemed top tier priorities for 2020.