Tensions in the South China Sea National Intelligence Estimate: The Next Two to Three Years


The South China Sea is developing at an extraordinarily rapid rate and the events that transpire in the region in the next two to three years will be some of the most significant geopolitical events in the world. Inside the South China Sea Region are five claimants, hundreds of contested geological features, and two major clashing superpowers: The United States and China. Four key variables have been identified as the principal factors in determining how the South China Sea will evolve in two to three years: (1) U.S. foreign policy in East Asia under Trump. (2) The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasing reliance on nationalism to maintain its legitimacy. (3) Vietnam and the development of its foreign policy. (4) The trend in the unity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a collective security organization. It is predicted with a high degree of confidence that tensions in the South China Sea will continue to increase as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy becomes more confrontational with China. This will in turn encourage Vietnam to act more assertively, which in turn will drive Chinese nationalism to new levels. We predict with a medium degree of confidence that the region will take on the characteristics of Finlandization as a weak U.S. economic, as well as a lackluster hard power presence drives the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) towards bandwagoning with an increasingly-aggressive China. Vietnam remains the lone holdout, lashing out from its isolated position. Finally, we predict with a low degree of confidence that the South China Sea will deescalate to the mid-2016 status quo as uncertainty in U.S. foreign policy forces all claimants and peripheral influences to pause and consolidate their positions. Black swan events in the region include a radical change in Indian foreign policy towards China and a radical shift in the China-Russia relationship, for better or worse.

Identification and Elaboration of the Key Variables in the South China Sea’s Development

Variable One: Trump’s Foreign Policy in East and Southeast Asia

The United States’ presence in and around the South China Sea littoral community has been and will continue to be the biggest factor in the region’s development economically, politically, culturally, and militarily. Therefore U.S. foreign policy under President-elect Trump will greatly impact the South China Sea in the next two to three years. Thus far, the presence of the United States has encouraged the many smaller claimants to land and sea territory in the South China Sea to try and remain united against Chinese attempts to claim and administer nearly all of the Sea. Without the United States, the weaker nations around the South China Sea have previously indicated that they would likely have little choice other than to bandwagon[i] with China despite their geopolitical and economic aversions.

While the United States has traditionally been a security provider and economic pillar for the region, the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States has cast this historical consistency into doubt. Trump’s foreign policy on the South China Sea has yet to be fully articulated days before his inauguration. This is a critical unknown for the multitude of nations balancing against China’s perceived aggression in the region and places a great deal of stress upon already buckling leadership. Trump personally has expressed isolationist tendencies in foreign policy, but has also voiced economic hostility towards China. That said, the presumed failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership removes the best possible way the United States can challenge China’s attempts to dominate the regional economy. Trump has indicated that he would raise tariffs on Chinese goods to at least 35 percent in order to bolster the United States’ domestic manufacturing sector, increasing the possibility of mutually harmful trade wars.