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PacNet #16 – Security Implications of Conflict in the South China Sea: Exploring Potential Triggers of Conflict

When one is asked to identify Southeast Asia’s potential hot spots, the South China Sea invariably ranks at or near the top of the list. The lingering territorial dispute among Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam over parts or all of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea does not appear ripe for any near-term solution. And, while all claimants have expressed a desire to settle the dispute peacefully, military force has been used before both to enforce and expand national claims and could be employed again, possibly with far-reaching disastrous consequences, especially if potential triggers of conflict are not clearly understood and avoided. This commentary attempts to more adequately understand the potential triggers of conflict in order to further reduce the prospects of hostility. For the sake of discussion, the potential triggers are divided into several broad categories.