The conflict to come in the South China Sea



As the United States and China volley round after round in an escalating trade war, a second front of conflict is brewing in the contested South China Sea, one that could soon force smaller regional states to take geopolitical sides.

This week, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer was deployed near the Scarborough Shoal, a sea feature occupied by China since 2012 but claimed by the Philippines as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The deployment was the destroyer’s second freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the shoal this month, maneuvers which pointedly challenge China’s recent militarization of the features it controls in the waterway.

The sea maneuver came against the backdrop of joint US-Philippine coast guard exercises held earlier this month near the Scarborough Shoal, the two sides’ first ever search-and-rescue exercise near the feature.

Chinese coast guard ships closely monitored the exercise, coming within five kilometers of a Philippine ship participating in the drill. Beijing has cause for concern: US and Philippine forces held a joint drill in April that simulated re-taking a remote occupied island. Some believe the exercises signal a bigger future role for the US Coast Guard in the area.

This year, China has doubled down on its military and para-military deployments in the South China Sea, prompting concerns about potential clashes with smaller claimant states.

China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan in the broad maritime area. Beijing claims as much as 90% of the sea in a so-called “nine-dash line” map.

In response, US President Donald Trump’s administration has announced it will unveil a new strategy to combat China’s maritime ambitions at the forthcoming Shangri-La Dialogue (May 31-June 2) in Singapore. US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan is scheduled to make an address at the conference.

There are already signs of growing naval coordination among US-aligned nations.