The South China Sea ranks high on any list of the world’s geopolitical hotspots. But though the region has been volatile for centuries, the last two decades have witnessed a subtle shift in the underlying drivers of conflict. Through most of the second half of the twentieth century, the biggest threats to regional stability were claimant states angling to carve out their own slices of the Sea. Today, states continue to covet islands controlled by their neighbors, but none is willing to run a significant risk of war in order to improve its position vis-à-vis the others.
Unfortunately, this good news has been offset by the rise of a different risk factor. Propelled by a combination of waning marine resources and misguided government policies, fishermen are sailing further from their shores and into disputed areas. There, they are increasingly likely to bump prows with either foreign competitors or antagonistic coast guards. The outcome in either case could be disastrous.
Accordingly, Washington has fallen short in its most recent proposal asking states to “freeze” the status quo. Rather than focusing their diplomatic energies exclusively on the behavior of foreign navies, American policy makers should recognize that the next crisis could inadvertently start in the waters between a fishing trawler and a zealous coast-guard cutter.
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Past Is Not Prologue
In the last century, states wrote the most important chapters in the South China Sea saga. The script was tense and sometimes even sanguinary : claimants raced to consolidate control over unoccupied islands, and in extreme cases, they attempted to wrest dominion from owners caught off-guard. These policies involved running a serious risk of outright conflict, but it was a gamble that states were willing to take. Hostilities crested in 1988, when Beijing and Hanoi battled over Johnson South Reef. China had trained for the landing extensively, anticipating violence. It got what it expected: after killing over seventy Vietnamese soldiers, China raised its flag over the barren rock.
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Today, in contrast, the claimants have shown little appetite for bloodshed. To be sure, each state is trying to shore up its claims through proactive strategies that are, for the most part, premised on a negative-sum approach to the dispute. As a result, the modern-day South China Sea story features high-strung states busy stockpiling arms and playing at war at every available opportunity .
But each nation has more to lose than to gain from a violent confrontation. For China, any military clash—no matter how brief— could torpedo the permissive international environment that has assisted its rapid economic rise. And in an era where growth is tapering, Beijing would suffer massive reputational costs from a conflict—costs that might imperil its future prosperity and expansion by pushing its neighbors into the arms of China’s strategic rival: the United States.
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The other claimants have even more to lose from a violent confrontation. Protracted infighting would undermine the united front necessary to effectively oppose the real threat to their claims: Chinese encroachment. And if they tangled directly with China, then these other states would almost certainly experience a quick and humiliating military defeat. Even as China was capsizing their navies, it would also be playing havoc with their economies. And on top of military losses and economic sanctions, these other claimants would also likely suffer strategic setbacks as they surrendered hard-earned “ground” in the South China Sea. This dismal calculus might come out differently if these nations could assure themselves of American involvement, but no state is willing to rely entirely on the promise of American assistance.
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Accordingly, no state wants to pick a fight in the South China Sea. This may change in a few years: Chinese policy makers may move from an assertive grand strategy to an aggressive one, or a smaller player may reach new levels of desperation. But at least for now, any crisis is unlikely to be state-engineered.
Down in the Trenches
Unfortunately, though, violence remains an ever-present possibility. When states face off in the South China Sea, they know that they can push the envelope only so far. But most encounters in the Sea do not occur at the state-to-state level; instead, they involve nonstate actors. Every day, fishermen from different nations cross paths with each other and with a variety of irascible maritime law-enforcement agencies. These interactions are laced with friction, and experience shows that it takes only one errant fishing captain to set off an explosive crisis.
The standoff over Scarborough Shoal exemplifies this dynamic. In April 2012, Manila caught eight Chinese fishermen “trespassing” in Philippine waters. Tensions escalated when each claimant decided to signal its determination to hold on to the Shoal. It is easy to imagine a repeat scenario that is resolved less peacefully—perhaps because this time, the Philippines refuses to be tricked into backing down.