Commentary | 25 July 2012

What's at stake in the South China Sea?

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea get much less attention than other crisis points, in the Taiwan Straits and the Korean Peninsula, but are arguably more unpredictable and dangerous. It is in the South China Sea that the components of Asia’s changing power dynamics are most concentrated and on display: China’s growing strategic heft and paranoid sense of entitlement; its Southeast Asian neighbours’ hopes and misgivings about China’s regional dominance; and the United States’ compulsion to meet China’s strategic challenge. In this Lowy Institute Snapshot, Michael Wesley examines the four reasons why finding solutions to the South China Sea disputes should be given the highest priority by strategic policy-makers.

  • Michael Wesley

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea get much less attention than other crisis points, in the Taiwan Straits and the Korean Peninsula, but are arguably more unpredictable and dangerous. It is in the South China Sea that the components of Asia’s changing power dynamics are most concentrated and on display: China’s growing strategic heft and paranoid sense of entitlement; its Southeast Asian neighbours’ hopes and misgivings about China’s regional dominance; and the United States’ compulsion to meet China’s strategic challenge. In this Lowy Institute Snapshot, Michael Wesley examines the four reasons why finding solutions to the South China Sea disputes should be given the highest priority by strategic policy-makers.

  • Michael Wesley

Key Findings

  • South China Sea warrants urgent attention by strategists and policy makers
  • Unaddressed incidents are likely to escalate, creating strategic instability within Southeast Asia and undoing the value of regional institutions and agreements such as ASEAN
  • Current solutions on the table, usually invoked by multilateral mediation or international law are 'exacerbating' the situation and have no chance of working.
  • Australia is well placed to play a significant role in proposing and brokering a solution.