When people ponder where the next major conflict might erupt, they often look to the South China Sea – the scene of the potentially most explosive, intractable, overlapping sovereignty claims in the world. What can the United States do to find a peaceful solution to tensions between China, the Philippines and Vietnam, and indirectly between Beijing and Washington?
These problems in the South China Sea are not new; the first U.S. policy statement regarding South China Sea disputes was made in 1995. Today’s policy is virtually identical, i.e., a peaceful, non-coercive diplomatic resolution that preserves regional stability and freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most heavily travelled seaways. What is different is that after almost a decade and a half of relative tranquility, the South China Sea has emerged as a cockpit of contention that raises the potential for conflict and introduces instability in Southeast Asia. The United States could become directly involved because the Philippines, one of the contending claimants to land features in the South China Sea, is a U.S. treaty ally.
In the South China Sea there are approximately 180 features above water at high tide. These rocks, shoals, sandbanks, reefs, and cays, plus unnamed shoals and submerged features are distributed among four geographically different areas of that sea. These features are claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. China and Taiwan (the Republic of China) claim all of the land features in the South China Sea. A bedrock principle of U.S. policy is that Washington takes no position on the legal merits of these respective claims.