The South China Sea ranks high on any list of the world’s geopolitical hotspots. But though the region has been volatile for centuries, the last two decades have witnessed a subtle shift in the underlying drivers of conflict. Through most of the second half of the twentieth century, the biggest threats to regional stability were claimant states angling to carve out their own slices of the Sea. Today, states continue to covet islands controlled by their neighbors, but none is willing to run a significant risk of war in order to improve its position vis-à-vis the others.
Unfortunately, this good news has been offset by the rise of a different risk factor. Propelled by a combination of waning marine resources and misguided government policies, fishermen are sailing further from their shores and into disputed areas. There, they are increasingly likely to bump prows with either foreign competitors or antagonistic coast guards. The outcome in either case could be disastrous.