Growing Tensions in the South China Sea

Competing territorial claims over islands in the South China Sea are intensifying tensions between the United States and China. Last week, the United States flew a military surveillance plane over disputed waters—a move described by the Chinese as a threat to Chinese sovereignty. China has been expanding natural reefs and constructing man-made islands in the sea in an effort to assert greater control over the region, particularly in light of competing territorial claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The Chinese military are also using the new islands to construct forward observation posts and airbases to support operations in the region.

In response to the US mission, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States lodged a formal diplomatic complaint and called on the US to stop its operations in the South China Sea. The Chinese Defense Ministry said it would expand operations in response to US actions. The danger is that both countries reach a point at which the cost of backing down is too high, and the fear of losing face leads to escalation on both sides, creating the possibility of unintended direct conflict.

What do you think? How might the United States and China deescalate tensions in the South China Sea? How do the interest of other regional actors, including Taiwan, complicate efforts at de-escalation? How would you advise the Chinese Premier or US President to handle the situation? Why?

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