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South China Sea Tensions Heat Up

November 26, 2021

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What's happening?

Tensions in the South China Sea have escalated following a clash between Philippine supply ships and Chinese Coast Guard vessels near a Philippine-occupied atoll.

The Philippine ships were delivering food supplies to military personnel on the Second Thomas Shoal when they were forced to turn back by Chinese vessels, which deployed water cannons. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin described the Chinese Coast Guard’s actions as illegal. 

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For years, China has affirmed territorial claims in the South China Sea—an area containing rich natural resources—antagonizing other Southeast Asian countries and threatening US interests in the region.

Beyond the clash, other recent factors are influencing tensions in the South China Sea:

  • An annual report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has claimed that the Chinese military will likely have the capabilities to invade Taiwan in a matter of years. The report states that the Chinese military can land at least 25,000 troops on Taiwan soil and has invested in new deployments that will likely block de-escalation efforts from conventional US forces.
  • New intelligence related to a Chinese hypersonic weapon test earlier this summer suggests that the country possesses technological advancements that currently surpass any other country. 
  • A new report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the United States claims that China’s maritime militia has grown significantly. According to CSIS, the militia may now include up to 300 vessels patrolling the Sea’s Spratly Islands at any given time.
  • Russian and Chinese naval vessels have been seen this fall sailing in tandem in neighboring regions. 
  • China has invested in large-scale disinformation campaigns in other countries. While directly unrelated to South China Sea disputes, such tactics could play a role in targeting nations involved in territorial disputes.

On Wednesday, leaders of Japan and Vietnam also jointly expressed serious concerns about South China Sea tensions.

What's the impact?

Regional observers have doubted that existing safeguards will prevent tensions from spiraling out of control given recent events and China’s increasing military infrastructure in the Sea.

A military escalation in the South China Sea—like an invasion of Taiwan—could provoke a military confrontation with the United States and other Southeast Asian countries, putting millions at risk. According to the President of the National Bureau of Asian Research, strategic gaps between China’s military and political leadership could thwart de-escalation efforts. This means that miscalculations are more likely to escalate in the short term.

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The Council on Foreign Relations ranks territorial disputes in the South China Sea as having a critical impact on US interests. A conflict in the region is also likely to impact global trade routes and supply chains relying on goods produced in the area. According to the Council, “[t]he failure of Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders to resolve the disputes by diplomatic means could also undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and encourage destabilizing arms buildups.”

What can you do?

To avoid miscalculations, national security decisions in the South China Sea require timely intelligence about activities in the region. Intelligence feeds rely on open-source data to assess on-the-ground (and sea) events and de-escalate potential conflicts effectively.

Open-source data like satellite imagery, marine traffic data, and social content helps intelligence teams assess concerning activities in the South China Sea, such as vessel buildups, military exercises, or infrastructure changes. This data can also support monitoring information environments relevant to regional conflicts, such as state media manipulation or public response to territorial disputes.

Specialized open-source intelligence (OSINT) tools are required to make this kind of information quickly and easily available. Book some time with our team to learn more about OSINT software and national security applications.