In this Sept. 23, 2015, file photo, Chinese Coast Guard members approach Filipino fishermen as they confront each other off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, also called the West Philippine Sea. AP FILE PHOTO
MANILA, Philippines—A possible armed confrontation over the disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea is on the top list of security threats concerning the United States in the coming year, according to an annual survey of US foreign policy experts.
An assessment conducted by the Center for Preventive Action of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based independent think tank, said a potential conflict between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants (Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam) was the only “top tier” priority involving China despite the growing geopolitical rivalry between US and China.
The survey released on Tuesday said the likelihood of the conflict would be “moderate,” which means it has an even chance of occurring in 2019.
But the impact of this would be “high” on US interests, however. This means “the contingency directly threatens the US homeland, a defense treaty ally, or a vital strategic interest, and, thus, is likely to trigger a major US military response.”
While a non-claimant in the South China Sea, the US has expressed concern over China’s militarization of the disputed features. It also regularly sends its warships for freedom of navigation operations to challenge China’s massive maritime claims.
The US is the Philippines’ oldest treaty ally but has remained vague if it would defend the latter when push comes to shove in the disputed features.
The Philippines and the US are bound by the Mutual Defense Treaty, signed on Aug. 30, 1951, which calls for both states to come to each other’s defense against an armed attack. But the US commitment to defend the Philippines if the attack involves disputed territories has persistently raised doubts in recent years.