US foreign policy experts: South China Sea conflict major concern for 2019

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US foreign policy experts
A map showing the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Confrontation in the South China Sea is a major security will be a major concern next year, according to US foreign policy experts.

An annual survey conducted by the Center for Preventive Action of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based independent think tank, said a potential conflict between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants — including the Philippines — was the only “top tier” priority involving China for 2018.

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However, the survey released today (Tuesday, December 18) said the likelihood of conflict remained “moderate”.

Despite this, the impact of any conflict would be “high” on US interests. This means “the contingency directly threatens the US homeland, a defence treaty ally, or a vital strategic interest and, thus, is likely to trigger a major US military response”.

While having no territorial claims in the South China Sea, the US has expressed concern over China’s militarisation of the disputed waters. The Pentagon regularly sends warships on ‘freedom of navigation operations’ to challenge China’s extensive claims over international shipping routes.

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The Philippines and the US are bound by 1951’s Mutual Defense Treaty which calls for both states to come to each other’s defence against an armed attack. But the US commitment to defend the Philippines if the attack involved disputed territories has has questioned in recent years.

Addressing these doubts last week, Dr Joseph Felter, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, said: “We’d like to avoid hypotheticals — what if this happens, what if that happens. In general, our alliance is ironclad and we are committed to the Mutual Defense Treaty and in protecting our treaty ally the Philippines in ensuring its sovereignty isn’t threatened.”

As we reported last week, more than six-in-10 Filipinos questioned on the subject said they believed that the USA would indeed come to their aid if their country was attacked.

Other Tier 1 security concerns highlighted by the survey include: A disruptive cyberattack on US infrastructure and networks; renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula; and an armed confrontation between Iran and the US.

The Preventive Priorities Survey produced a list of top 30 contingencies and assessed each in terms of likelihood and potential impact on US interests. The results were sorted into three tiers of relative priority.

About 500 US foreign policy experts, government officials and academics took part in the survey last month.

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