Potential 2020 Flashpoints: South China Sea

Still image from United States Navy video purportedly shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands

Malaysia tossed a curve ball directly at the People’s Republic of China earlier this month. In a move that stunned the South China Sea region, Malaysia has openly defied China’s claims in the sea, referring to the Nine-Dash Line as ‘ridiculous.’ The comment was made by the Malaysian foreign minister on 20 December as part of a statement defending his nation’s submission of claim to the UN seeking to extend the outer limits of Malaysia’s continental shelf beyond 200 miles. China responded by accusing Malaysia of infringing on its sovereignty and violating international law.

Kuala Lumpur’s actions assure there will be stiffer resistance to China’s ambitious political and military moves in the South China Sea through the early part of 2020. Nations with claims in the sea have hardened their positions in the face of Beijing’s pressure. Organized resistance to this has started to appear, in large part due to the United States having increased its presence in the area and seeking closer ties with nations such as Vietnam, and the Philippines. Confident of US support, other nations are beginning to speak out and act against China’s moves with growing confidence.

At the present time, China has a host of other issues to deal with, from the detention of Uighur Muslims, to Hong Kong, and the ongoing trade war with the United States. The South China Sea is where the greatest chance of confrontation lies. Even so, Beijing is not expected to cave in or soften its stace. Xi Jinping will press forward, but perhaps a little more delicately than one would expect. China has the upper-hand in the South China Sea at the moment. Regardless if 2020 brings confrontation, or negotiation with its rivals in the region, Beijing will operate from a position of strength.

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