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Tensions in the South China Sea National Intelligence Estimate: The Next Two to Three Years

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Tensions in the South China Sea National Intelligence Estimate: The Next Two to Three Years

Daniel Urchick

Executive Summary

The South China Sea is developing at an extraordinarily rapid rate and the events that transpire in the region in the next two to three years will be some of the most significant geopolitical events in the world.  Inside the South China Sea Region are five claimants, hundreds of contested geological features, and two major clashing superpowers: The United States and China. Four key variables have been identified as the principal factors in determining how the South China Sea will evolve in two to three years: (1) U.S. foreign policy in East Asia under Trump. (2) The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasing reliance on nationalism to maintain its legitimacy. (3) Vietnam and the development of its foreign policy. (4) The trend in the unity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a collective security organization. It is predicted with a high degree of confidence that tensions in the South China Sea will continue to increase as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy becomes more confrontational with China. This will in turn encourage Vietnam to act more assertively, which in turn will drive Chinese nationalism to new levels. We predict with a medium degree of confidence that the region will take on the characteristics of Finlandization as a weak U.S. economic, as well as a lackluster hard power presence drives the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) towards bandwagoning with an increasingly-aggressive China. Vietnam remains the lone holdout, lashing out from its isolated position. Finally, we predict with a low degree of confidence that the South China Sea will deescalate to the mid-2016 status quo as uncertainty in U.S. foreign policy forces all claimants and peripheral influences to pause and consolidate their positions. Black swan events in the region include a radical change in Indian foreign policy towards China and a radical shift in the China-Russia relationship, for better or worse.

Identification and Elaboration of the Key Variables in the South China Sea’s Development

Variable One: Trump’s Foreign Policy in East and Southeast Asia

The United States’ presence in and around the South China Sea littoral community has been and will continue to be the biggest factor in the region’s development economically, politically, culturally, and militarily. Therefore U.S. foreign policy under President-elect Trump will greatly impact the South China Sea in the next two to three years. Thus far, the presence of the United States has encouraged the many smaller claimants to land and sea territory in the South China Sea to try and remain united against Chinese attempts to claim and administer nearly all of the Sea. Without the United States, the weaker nations around the South China Sea have previously indicated that they would likely have little choice other than to bandwagon[i] with China despite their geopolitical and economic aversions.

While the United States has traditionally been a security provider and economic pillar for the region, the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States has cast this historical consistency into doubt. Trump’s foreign policy on the South China Sea has yet to be fully articulated days before his inauguration. This is a critical unknown for the multitude of nations balancing against China’s perceived aggression in the region and places a great deal of stress upon already buckling leadership. Trump personally has expressed isolationist tendencies in foreign policy, but has also voiced economic hostility towards China. That said, the presumed failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership removes the best possible way the United States can challenge China’s attempts to dominate the regional economy. Trump has indicated that he would raise tariffs on Chinese goods to at least 35 percent in order to bolster the United States’ domestic manufacturing sector, increasing the possibility of mutually harmful trade wars.

Recent Tweets from Trump’s account, directed at China and the South China Sea, further indicate that Trump may be willing to forgo the United States’ historic non-committal stance in the dispute. On December 4, 2016, he wrote in two consecutive Tweets:

“Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into…their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?  I don't think so!”

The language of this Twitter tirade indicates that Trump believes that China should ask the United States for permission to carry out its actions in the South China Sea. Trump has also expressed that he believes that nations like South Korea and Japan, which benefit from the U.S. ‘security blanket’, are not contributing to fairly to their own security and have thus given legitimacy to ‘blanket’s’ removal. Trump also expressed support, or at the least indifference, towards the idea of Japan and other countries obtaining nuclear weapons. Currently, it is unclear about what this means for the United States’ allies and security partners around the South China Sea. While Trump’s advisors have walked back some of his rhetoric about nuclear weapons proliferation but the possibilities of abandonment and proliferation are now out there and stronger than ever.

Aside from himself, several of Trump’s top foreign policy advisors are known for their pro-Taiwan and anti-China positions, notably Peter Navarro and John Bolton. President-elect Trump’s nominee for the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon-Mobil offered the most hawkish stance on China yet in his confirmation hearing. Tillerson compared China’s activities in the South China Sea to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and annexing the Crimean Peninsula. Tillerson went on to say he thought the United States should deny China access to the disputed islands it has built and occupied. General James Mattis went on record in his own confirmation hearing as stating that China’s actions in the South China Sea was the third largest threat to the U.S.-led world order today. As a Marine, Mattis no doubt has a strong sense of history and traditional in regards to the United States’ position in the Asia-Pacific. These top administration officials could certainly influence the impressionable President-elect to act more confrontational towards China politically and militarily, in addition to economically, in hotspots like the South China Sea.

Trump’s recent phone call with the President of Taiwan signaled that the reworking of U.S. foreign policy in the larger East Asia region may already be underway by the Trump transition team. Chinese sensitivities regarding Taiwan could cause overreactions across the region, even if the actions begin as unintentionally provocative. Trump’s calls for a 350-ship navy conflict with previously espoused isolationist rhetoric and, while unlikely to achieve, is yet another indication of a more confrontational U.S. military towards China. A more confrontational U.S. towards China in the South China Sea region could also embolden other nations as well. Vietnam, for instance, has a plethora of territorial disputes with China alone, and could become more reckless in its confrontation with China, charged by historical animosity.

Variable Two: CCP’s Reliance on Nationalism for Legitimacy

The way in which nationalism continues to develop in China will have a significant impact on the South China Sea in the next two to three years. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reliance on nationalism is directly linked to China’s overall economic development. Chinese economic development, as well as the restoration of China’s territorial integrity since the 100 Years of Humiliation comprises the “China Dream.” The CCP’s ability to deliver on both of those goals constitutes their first and second “pillars of legitimacy” for unilaterally ruling China.

The territorial restoration pillar has often been used to compensate for stagnation in domestic standards of living and other economic shortcomings in China. Nationalism in China is a consequence of a deep sense of historical injury, with roots in the 100 Years of Humiliation. After gaining full control over mainland China in 1949, the CCP promised to reclaim the remaining territory around China’s periphery, such as in the South China Sea. The CCP argues that this territory was taken from China during the 100 Years of Humiliation and has made such nationalistic views a core part of the Chinese education system since the 1990s. Nationalism has grown steadily since.

This aggressive nationalism reached a similar apex under Chairman Mao in the 1960’s and 1970’s when China was involved in several small wars and conflicts over territory with little strategic value, focused rather on huge historical significance and pride. After Mao, the Chinese leadership under Deng Xiaoping’s direction was much more willing to settle or ignore territorial disputes in favor of joint or mutual economic gain. This bolstered the concept of a “peaceful rise,” which was later changed to “peaceful development.” This reassurance led to an unprecedented boom in regional economic growth as other regional players fully committed to linking their economies with a peaceful China.

Since 2009, however, China has retreated from a deferential policy, moving towards one of increased assertiveness in its remaining territorial disputes. These disputes include the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the disputed Indo-Chinese border area of Arunachal Pradesh. The East China Sea and Arunachal Pradesh are disputes with Japan and India, respectively. These are two nations that are already very assertive towards China geopolitically. Setbacks in either of these areas have historically led the CCP to ‘double down’ on the South China Sea to distract the Chinese populace, and could continue to have such an influence in the future.

China began a highly-controversial island building program under its assumed ownership in the South China Sea, resulting in 2,900 acres of “new land,” totaling more than all other claimants combined. Thus far, China has remained content to use paramilitary “maritime militias,” maritime police, and Coast Guard units to avoid a truly militarized dispute. The use of police assets, which often have more firepower than the surrounding nations’ naval vessels, implies that the Sea’s waters and features are domestically administered by China rather than treated as a foreign asset. However, it should be noted that Chinese Coast Guard and maritime police units often have more firepower than the surrounding nation’s actual naval vessels. China’s disputes over the islands with its primary opposition in the region, Vietnam and the Philippines, have resulted in a number of nationalistic protests, often encouraged by the CCP, providing a domestic cover for Chinese actions against these countries and forcing them into a vicious policy circle. For example, Vietnam held an exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which China disputed. In 2014, China moved an oil rig into this zone, forcibly preventing Filipino fisherman from using their traditional fishing grounds in the disputed waters around the Scarborough Shoal.

China’s injured national pride is redeemed in part by the CCP’s strong stance against Vietnam, the Philippines, and their perceived Western backers, which provides robust legitimacy fulfillment. The government has shown that it is even willing to tolerate mass-protest when they have a nationalistic tone. However, these protests have become increasingly difficult to control, limiting China’s bargaining ability once events reach the government’s desirable outcome, for instance if the nations should seek reconciliation over the disputes. The more the CCP relies on this strong sense of nationalism, the more difficulty the party will experience trying to shape and direct it without suffering de-legitimization.

Variable Three: Vietnam and Vietnamese Foreign Policy

Following the Philippines’ efforts to reconcile with China, Vietnam has become the gravitational center of regional opposition to China in the South China Sea. The way in which Vietnam and its own foreign/defense policy develops will have a large impact on how the South China Sea issue develops in the next two to three years.  Signs already indicate that Vietnam will continue to internally balance against China, even if the rest of ASEAN bandwagons with the rising regional power. Vietnam is currently expanding its airstrip on Spratly Island, deploying guided rocket artillery to several islands it controls, and reaching out to numerous major power nations for arms, like Russia and India. Externally, Vietnam is supported by a rapidly-growing security relationship under the present Obama administration. Vietnam also maintains mature security ties with Russia, as well as growing India and Japan, both of which are particularly sensitive nations for Chinese policy-makers.

Vietnam was under Chinese occupation for almost 1,000 years before obtaining its’ independence and resisting new Chinese invasions for another millennium. This historical animosity has played a large factor in burgeoning Vietnamese nationalism and geopolitical hostility towards its northern neighbor. Vietnam has also had the inglorious distinction of being on the losing side of two skirmishes in the South China Sea with China in the past 50 years. One of these skirmishes, occurring in 1974, resulted in the loss of the Paracel Islands, an incident that will not soon be forgotten by Vietnam which as a historical memory as long as China’s. Since 2009, Vietnam has been the subject of particularly controversial actions by China. For example, in 2014, China moved an oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone near the Paracel Islands. Vietnamese officials firmly believe that the potential energy and mineral deposits in the disputed portions of the South China Sea are essential to the country’s economic prosperity, thus making the oil rig an especially egregious move by China.

Chart One. Vietnamese Arms Expenditure

Chart found at: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/vietnam/military-expenditure

The oil rig, along with China’s typical modus operandi (Coast Guard, maritime militia, etc.), has spurred Vietnamese attempts to establish its own Anti-Area/Access Denial (A2/AD) zone along its littoral. Vietnam has carried out island building and reclamation work on 27 South China Sea features that it occupies, more than any other claimant. However, its reclamation efforts, when measured by total geological area are still far exceeded by China’s own efforts. In August 2016, Vietnam placed mobile guided rocket launchers on several of its islands in the South China Sea, and has since expressed interest in buying the Russo-Indian BrahMos Cruise Missile for the express purpose of countering China. With moves like this, it is no surprise that Vietnam’s defense budget was expected to have reached $5 billion in 2016 or 2.6% of the gross domestic product, and it is forecasted to exceed $6 billion by 2020.

Variable Four: Evolution of ASEAN

Developments in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are the final variables for the South China Sea. ASEAN is typically thought of as a regional economic coalition, but the organization also maintains broader policy stances beyond the scope of solely economic relationships. These broad policies are often referred to as the “ASEAN Way,” which is non-interference in other nation’s affairs, along with the promotion of shared values and a common identity. Despite the policy of non-interference, ASEAN boasts the fastest growing military budgets outside of the Middle East.

ASEAN increasingly views China as an economically exploitive nation, rather than a mutually-beneficial partner. This exploitation, in conjunction with the ASEAN perception that China is carrying out aggressive actions in the South China Sea, led to a more unified ASEAN in balancing against China than had ever previously existed. China has thus far used its’ large economic sway with Cambodia and Laos to prevent an official resolution condemning China’s actions from passing by required unanimous consensus. Cambodia and Laos are the only nations to remain firmly in the Chinese camp and, as the pro-Chinese leadership ages, this loyalty remains in doubt. Military expenditures in Southeast Asia, with the exception of the spending of Brunei and Myanmar', have climbed steadily from $14.4 billion collectively in 2004 to $35.5 billion in 2013, a 147 percentage increase within a decade. Regional military expenditures rose by 10 percent from 2012 to 2013, and expenditures are estimated to have surpassed $40 billion by the end of 2016.

The events of 2016 have cast many previous ASEAN international relations trends, such as their opposition to China, into doubt. The newly-elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, signaled that he wished to move away from the current U.S. alliance system to what appears to be a more pro-China, or at least non-aligned, position in East Asia. Duterte has forsaken the Philippines’ legal victory over China in the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and met with the President of China, Xi Jinping despite the clear implications for current regional security dynamics. This meeting resulted in a $13.5 billion investment deal for the Philippines, promises of join resource development in the South China Sea as well as the possible allowance of Filipino fisherman into contested waters around the Scarborough Shoal. It has not been smooth sailing for the rapprochement between Duterte and Xi. Duterte stated that he would “raise” the South China Sea ruling if China unilaterally began exploiting minerals in the South China Sea. Given Duterte’s displeasure at the perception of being treated as a less-than-equal partner with the United States, his comments on Chinese mineral exploitation insert new uncertainty into the region.

The Sino-Filipino normalization quickly resulted in another defection, Malaysia. Yet another South China Sea claimant and U.S. security partner chose to meet with China’s leadership and agree to negotiate their dispute bilaterally. This agreement resulted in the signing of $34 billion in trade deals and a naval vessel arms sale to Malaysia. The solidarity on issues that ASEAN exhibits is already fragile due to the client-state statuses of Cambodia and Laos. Much of ASEAN is wary of the fickleness of the United States’ presence in the region, as well as the shrinking military parity between the United States and China.

Interplay of Variables

While separate ideas, all four of the key variables in the development of the South China Sea in the upcoming years are interrelated and build upon each other for future national intelligence estimates. The United States’ Asia-Pacific foreign policy under President-elect Trump is the base variable for the estimate closely followed by Chinese nationalism. The United States remains the most powerful nation in the region, thus allowing its regional foreign policy, be it assertive, cooperative, or isolationist, to have a direct effect on every nation in the area and how those countries will conduct their own foreign policies. The amount of U.S. presence in the region, and how that presence evolves, will have an impact on the solidarity of ASEAN, as well as whether its member nations will move towards accommodation with China or continue to rebuke China’s actions in the South China Sea. This relationship, in turn, impacts whether Vietnam feels supported or isolated as it balances against China.

U.S. foreign policy will have the greatest impact on China, the CCP, and their use of nationalism. A U.S. foreign policy that seeks to punish China economically will only further push the government’s reliance on nationalism. Meanwhile, a confrontational U.S. policy in or over the South China Sea would further stoke the domestic nationalism of China, forcing its government officials to react and potentially drive ASEAN closer together and, specifically, cause more Vietnamese hostility.

The evolutions of ASEAN and Vietnam are deeply intertwined. A more unified ASEAN would be able to better temper Vietnam’s actions and rhetoric. A more divided ASEAN impacts the mindset of Vietnamese policy-makers and their feelings of isolationism. This interplay is in tension with the impact of U.S. policy under Trump on Vietnam. It is possible for much of ASEAN to join together in support of a strong U.S. hard power presence, which would bolster Vietnam and encourage the nation to be assertive and confrontational in its foreign policy with China.

Description and Elaboration of Scenarios with Predictions

High Confidence: Increasing Tensions      

We predict with a high level of confidence that tensions in the South China Sea will escalate in the next two to three years. U.S. foreign policy in the region, likely to be led by China-hardliners like Peter Navarro and John Bolton, is likely to be confrontational with China across the spectrum of U.S.-China relations. There will likely be an increase in Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) near contested features in the South China Sea. Arms sales to Vietnam from the United States and India will likely increase as well as tensions increase. The United States will increasingly rely on Vietnam as a direct regional proxy as Duterte’s Philippines takes a non-aligned approach towards China and the United States. The Philippines’ domestic nationalism, still deeply anti-China, will prevent Duterte from moving towards full reconciliation with China. Meanwhile, the harsh economic measures against China, promised by Trump, will likely manifest with cascading effects on the economies of other nations in the region.

Map One. Chinese A2/AD Ranges in the South China Sea

Map found at: http://www.cfr.org/asia-and-pacific/chinas-maritime-disputes/p31345#!/?cid=otr-    marketing_use-china_sea_InfoGuide

U.S. actions, like FONOPS, will provoke CCP leadership to respond in an equally-confrontational manner, in order to avoid the risk of domestic nationalism turning against them due to an inadequate response. Regardless, China will likely face declining economic development as U.S. economic measures against China manifest, forcing the CCP to rely more on nationalism. China would likely respond to the FONOPS with the deployment of more People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) assets in the region, rather than with Coast Guard vessels and maritime militia forces, as they have regularly done in the past. The use of PLAN ships will come after decades of military capability growth under high naval budgets and burgeoning nationalism.

In the event of escalating tensions, the establishment of a Chinese air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the Spratly Islands in the southern end of the South China Sea is also likely. The creation of an ADIZ would be augmented by a renewed effort by China to further develop its holdings with more anti-air and anti-ship missile batteries, as well as larger airfields. These developments would be a natural continuation of China’s militarization of the artificial islands in which China placed close-in weapon systems (CIWS) on several islands in late-2016. The establishment of a rotational deployment of fighter regiments on the southern islands would become official in order to help enforce the ADIZ. Under this high probability scenario, the deployment of CV-17, China’s first fully indigenous aircraft carrier to the South China Sea is a distinct possibility due to a stronger and farther reaching A2/AD umbrella being available.

The normalization of ties between the Philippines and China in mid-2016 will eventually result in the final collapse of attempts to create a unified ASEAN opposed China’s regional assertiveness. However, U.S. security partners, like Vietnam and Singapore, are likely to remain against China’s dominant vision for the region. Vietnam’s domestic nationalism and deep history of aggression towards China will drive it towards continued assertiveness, hostile rhetoric, and the continuation of the ongoing development of Vietnamese features and islands. Vietnam will augment its military assets currently deployed on features it controls with advanced weapons such as BrahMos cruise missiles from India and naval patrol vessels supplied by Japan. Encouraged by the forceful example of the United States, Vietnam could seek to confront Chinese naval and coast guard vessels in contested areas more often, raising the risk of a real kinetic conflict.

Medium Confidence: Finlandization of ASEAN

We assess with medium confidence that the smaller claimants in the South China Sea region will move towards Finlandization[ii] in their relationships with China. Under Trump, the United States will once again become increasingly focused on the Middle East due to policy makers like General Michael Flynn and General James Mattis. Trump’s proposed 350-ship Navy will fail to materialize in the region due to budget constraints, rendering it unable to effectively counter a rapidly-expanding and modernizing PLAN as well as an A2/AD zone growing in sophistication.

The Philippines’ efforts normalize ties with China in 2016 created a chain reaction in which much of ASEAN seeks conciliation with China on many issues, including the disputes in the South China Sea. This rush to conciliate is in part due to U.S. economic withdrawal from the region due to Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which will follow the expected failure of the TPP. These conciliation efforts will remove what little ability ASEAN has to invoke a sense of collective security. Therefore, the nations of ASEAN are forced to alter their foreign policies drastically in order to better appease an emboldened China. Outright recognition of the South China Sea as Chinese territory by some claimants would be possible in this scenario. Regional governments will be forced to ignore or quell domestic nationalism to salvage economic relationships with China, which will further result in low popularity for the local nations. The United States will also suffer large soft power losses due to its actions being seen as abandoning the region. The success of Chinese efforts to neutralize the opposition to its claims in the South China Sea will give the CCP a chance to reach favorable bilateral agreements with rival claimants without the pressure of rising nationalism domestically.

Low Confidence: Bargain to Keep Status Quo

We assess with low confidence that the South China Sea will remain at its current levels of moderate tension, with very little, future development, positive or negative. The uncertainty surrounding Trump will give all nations in the region pause, and they will look to consolidate positions, rather than expand or create new tensions. Without the expected economic drop from Trump’s economic reprisals against China, and no radical increase in FONOPs, the CCP will not feel pressure to push its claims in the South China Sea past where they stand now.

Trump’s rhetoric calling for the United States will punish China economically will be mostly symbolic. China’s economy will perform well enough following a host of minor trade deals throughout the region after the solidification of the status quo that the CCP will not have to lean on Nationalism further to secure its legitimacy. Following the revelation that the threat of U.S. economic retaliation on China was mere bluster, the personalities of Trump, Xi, and Duterte will naturally align and result in a regional bargain to return tensions to mid-2016 levels. The creation of a South China Sea code of conduct similar to the agreement in 2002 that froze the South China Sea dispute would be likely in this scenario. ASEAN countries like the Philippines and Malaysia will not retract or drop their claims in the South China Sea, but will instead work to keep their dissatisfaction quiet for the sake of bilateral trade deals, and will continue with their projected military purchases. As such, ASEAN will retain its nominally loose unification towards the South China Sea but will remain quite on the issue in general meetings and events. The only truly pro-China attitudes will continue to come from Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam will find itself in an isolated geopolitical position. Vietnam’s confrontation of China in the South China Sea will not escalate beyond the actions it has taken in the recent past. Without strong support from other ASEAN countries or the United States Vietnam will be forced to only carry out low-level confrontational actions while continuing to internally balance with what weapon systems it can afford.

Possible Black Swan Events

Black swan events are unlikely, but potential developments that could alter the equation beyond the above assessment. The South China Sea is a complex region with moving parts in over 12 nations directly or indirectly relevant to the region. India and Russia serve as two such important peripheral nations that take the form of wildcards in the region.

Map Two. Maritime Chokepoints in Southeast Asia

Map Found at: https://geopoliticalfutures.com/chinas-maritime-choke-points/

The first black swan event would be India developing a more confrontational foreign policy with robust military capabilities towards not only Pakistan, but also China. The still low, but growing, geopolitical tensions between India and China could rapidly expand to the South China Sea where India’s “Look East Policy” and China’s perceived natural sphere of influence collide. India is already being seen as the continental bulwark needed to balance China by many officials in and around the South China Sea region. If India did take up such a mantle, the entire geopolitical and military calculus of the region would shift radically in an unknown direction at this time. Part of this shift could comprise of India larger quantities of and better quality military hardware to nations like Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. India’s offering of the Akash surface to air missile system to Vietnam in early-2017 shows how this wild card could quickly metastasize into a real influencing factor.

Russia, and more specifically its relationship with China, is the second wild card to consider for the South China Sea. While it may seem peculiar that Russia would play a role in the South China Sea, Russia’s arms sales to the region have had a large impact on the members of ASEAN and their ability to resist Chinese ambitions. Russia claims that this has previous just been business “for business’ sake.” If the Sino-Russian relationship sours, perhaps over Russia’s more overt and grandiose efforts to alter the status quo or competition in Central Asia, arms sales to the region could spike even further. An increased influx of arms to the region, especially arms to Vietnam, would likely destabilize the region even further than assessed in the above projections. Alternatively, Russia could pull the plug on its arms sales to the region in favor of moving even closer to China. The ability of nations in the area to deter China and resist Finlandization could fall even further than projected.

Conclusion

Writing a national intelligence estimate on the South China Sea is always a brave, but perilous endeavor. With numerous nations, and even more conflicting interests involved, assessing what comes next has often confounded even the most experienced policy makers. Evaluating the future of the South China Sea during a presidential transition in the United States, especially with an erratic figure like Trump, makes this task all the more onerous; thus, the scenarios in this assessment should be viewed in the context of a world whose order is being rapidly shaken up and redefined. Policy makers should remain vigilant about developments in the region and diligent in their efforts to identify nuances hinting at the intentions of the nations located around what many would consider to currently be the world’s most important body of water.

No matter what the future holds in the South China Sea, more of the same strategy from local and foreign powers is highly improbable. Recent controversial statements and actions by President-elect Trump may be the products of his typically uncouth foreign policy efforts so far. Given the advisers he surrounds himself with, as well as his rare show of consistency in regards to hostility towards China, Trump could create a future relationship that will be the most confrontational since the height of the Cold War. Attempting to push China into a corner while its global profile is on the rise, but it is faced with domestic, economic, and nationalistic pressures is a dangerous gamble that appears likely in the next two to three years.

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End Notes

[i] Bandwagoning in international relations occurs when a state aligns with a stronger, adversarial power and concedes that the stronger adversary-turned-partner disproportionately gains in the spoils they conquer together. Bandwagoning, therefore, is a strategy employed by weak states.

[ii] The neutralization of a country in terms of its allegiance to the superpowers, in the way that the Soviet Union rendered Finland neutral and friendly without making it a satellite state or requiring that it adopt Communism.

 

About the Author(s)

Daniel Urchick is the Defense Analyst at Aviation Week responsible for the Middle East, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to his second stint at Aviation Week, he was a contractor at the Department of Defense. He earned his MA in Political Science from Central Michigan University in 2015 and his MA in Security Policy Studies, focusing on Defense Analysis and Asian Security from George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in 2018. His writing has previously appeared in The Diplomat, Strategy Bridge, Geopolitical Monitor, Small Wars Journal, Real Clear Defense, The HuffPost, and Defence IQ.