Asia’s seas are a primary scene of potential contemporary geopolitical conflict. At times of intensifying competition and the proliferation of naval expansion programs, the maritime domain is where the ambitions and strategies of emerging and established powers meet and collide. These rough encounters create shifting fault lines that are – maybe nowhere more than in the South China Sea – prone to escalation and to produce a new balance of power.
Drawing from a similar assessment, the American author Robert Kaplan identified the South China Sea as not just the place where the future of Eurasia lies, but also as “the future of conflict” itself. Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, compared it to the Balkans of 1913. Pointing his finger at the People’s Republic of China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III drew a parallel between Western negligence vis-à-vis the situation in the South China Sea today and their position in 1938 when faced with German forays into Czechoslovakia.
Certainly, the lexical context is polarized. Strong statements and dramatic historical analogies serve a purpose: they demonstrate how different parties navigate and interpret the intricacies of South China Sea disputes, either for the sake of domestic legitimacy, diplomatic outreach or political imperatives. In fact, the South China Sea has been home to latent tensions, ambivalent postures and insidious interpretations for several decades. The underlying reality is that China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have built a system of “negotiated tensions” in the South China Sea since at least 1992. The premise that China was willing to compromise provided sufficient grounding for Asean to progress and regional stability to prevail. But this functional status quo may come to a close since parties may derive from the ambiguous signals of others a sense of strategic urgency.
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