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New Century China Forum

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I. Introduction

A hypothetical major conflict between the United States and People’s Republic of China (PRC) is usually envisioned in terms of the potential powder keg of Taiwan and cross-Strait relations. However, the most likely rub for friction between the two superpowers in the 21st century may, in fact, actually lie thousands of kilometers further south in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea has been almost entirely neglected in the past by the United States in the course of Asian endeavors. Recently however, Taiwan has faded from the agenda between Beijing and Washington while the South China Sea has gradually risen in importance. With the recent 2008 landslide election victory for Ma Ying-Jeou and the China-friendly Kuomintang party, the prospect of a major superpower war over Taiwan seems more distant than ever, and may in fact have been forever averted as a realistic possibility.

II. The South China Sea Region

The South China Sea is claimed in part or whole by six nations in the region; namely, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. (Japan and France also had claims to the region previously, but have since abandoned them. Brunei is unique in that it makes no claim to islands, only to waters.) However, nearly all disputes are viewed in the context of China and China mostly, because Beijing has the largest claims to demand in the region and is by far the most powerful of all the claimants when push comes to shove.

Clashes in the region have been frequent and violent. In the past few decades there have been the Mischief Reef incidents of 1995 where Filipino forces blew up Chinese territorial markers and buoys, the killing of 70 Vietnamese sailors at the Chigua Reef by the Chinese in 1988, and the 1974 Chinese seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974. And the potential for conflict remains very high; clashes between military vessels occur on an almost annual basis up to today. As the United States begins to play a greater role in the region, the South South China Sea may eventually become one of the most volatile crisis hot spots in the world.