The South China Sea, at least until last year, was the most important strategic issue in the Asia-Pacific, and certainly in the top five of potential global hotspots.
The reasons were obvious. With China flexing its muscles in an effort to dominate one of the most important bodies of water in the world — one through which over $5.3 trillion in seaborne trade passes and underneath which untold natural resources lie buried — tensions throughout the region were skyrocketing.
In fact, after Beijing lost a major international court case to the Philippines last summer, invalidating most of its claims to the South China Sea, the stage looked like it was being set for a superpower showdown not seen since the days of the Cold War. One senior Pentagon staffer even told me last July that “if World War III is going to break out in the next decade, my bet is on the South China Sea being the place the first shot is fired.”
What a difference nearly a year can make.
Thanks to a whole host of factors — China reacting calmly to the ruling, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte trying to make nice with Beijing for economic reasons, and the transition of administrations in America — the South China Sea has dropped off the list of Washington’s top foreign policy priorities.