The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tensions

Tensions are on the rise in the South China Sea. Longstanding sovereignty disputes over the profusion of atolls, shoals and reefs that dot the 1.2 million square miles of sea, allied to extensive overlapping claims to maritime space, have been a source of serious interstate contention over the years, especially during the 1990s. A brief easing of tensions occurred in the first half of this decade due in part to China’s more accommodating and flexible attitude, which was part of a diplomatic “charm offensive” toward Southeast Asia intended to assuage regional anxieties over the country’s growing economic, political and military clout. Over the past several years, however, China has reverted to a more assertive posture in consolidating its jurisdictional claims, expanding its military reach and seeking to undermine the claims of other states through coercive diplomacy.