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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Accessing Future Flashpoints in the South China Sea


Confrontations between China and other rival claimants in the South China Sea have gained increasing prominence in regional and international media, most recently during a 2012 standoff between Manila and Beijing over sovereignty of the Scarborough Shoals. The potential for miscalculation and escalation during these confrontations is of concern to policymakers in Washington in that the waterway is of vital strategic interest to the United States, and several of the rival claimants facing China are defense partners. A serious confrontation between China and one of these defense partners could well result in a broader crisis between China and the United States. This paper examines data relating to “significant” military confrontations in the South China Sea from 1974 to the present in an attempt to identify trends in the confrontations, the most likely future flashpoints, and the most likely antagonists. The brief concludes with policy recommendations related to deterring aggressive assertions in the South China Sea.

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