Potential 2020 Flashpoints: South China Sea

Still image from United States Navy video purportedly shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands

Malaysia tossed a curve ball directly at the People’s Republic of China earlier this month. In a move that stunned the South China Sea region, Malaysia has openly defied China’s claims in the sea, referring to the Nine-Dash Line as ‘ridiculous.’ The comment was made by the Malaysian foreign minister on 20 December as part of a statement defending his nation’s submission of claim to the UN seeking to extend the outer limits of Malaysia’s continental shelf beyond 200 miles. China responded by accusing Malaysia of infringing on its sovereignty and violating international law.

Kuala Lumpur’s actions assure there will be stiffer resistance to China’s ambitious political and military moves in the South China Sea through the early part of 2020. Nations with claims in the sea have hardened their positions in the face of Beijing’s pressure. Organized resistance to this has started to appear, in large part due to the United States having increased its presence in the area and seeking closer ties with nations such as Vietnam, and the Philippines. Confident of US support, other nations are beginning to speak out and act against China’s moves with growing confidence.

At the present time, China has a host of other issues to deal with, from the detention of Uighur Muslims, to Hong Kong, and the ongoing trade war with the United States. The South China Sea is where the greatest chance of confrontation lies. Even so, Beijing is not expected to cave in or soften its stace. Xi Jinping will press forward, but perhaps a little more delicately than one would expect. China has the upper-hand in the South China Sea at the moment. Regardless if 2020 brings confrontation, or negotiation with its rivals in the region, Beijing will operate from a position of strength.

Tuesday 7 March, 2017 Update: North Korea & Malaysia Impose Travel Bans

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International relations generally incorporate the major elements of a very successful soap opera. There is drama, action, and betrayal ad nauseam, the forming and breaking of alliances for strategic purposes, and occasionally a dash of comedy is added to the mixture. The ongoing squabble between North Korea and Malaysia contains every one of the abovementioned ingredients, and as in any good soap opera, the plot is growing steadily over time.

The latest installment of the crisis came earlier today when North Korea barred all Malaysian residents currently in North Korea from leaving the country. Malaysia responded by extending the travel ban on North Korean embassy officials to cover all North Korean citizens in the country. At present, there are eleven Malaysian citizens in North Korea. Nine of these are embassy staff members and their family members. The other two are working with the World Food Program. The number of North Koreans in Malaysia is not known, however, the Associated Press estimates there are roughly 1,000. Both countries have already declared each other’s ambassadors to be persona non grata, essentially a civil way of kicking a top diplomat out of the country. North Korea released a statement saying that Malaysians were barred from leaving the country until there is a ‘fair settlement’ between the two governments over the death of Kim Jung Nam.

All of this activity stems from the murder of the North Korean leader’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur three weeks ago. Malaysia accused North Korean agents of planning and executing the assassination and using VX, a nerve agent, as the weapon. The incident led to a tailspin of accusations, counter-accusations, diplomatic rhetoric, a criminal investigation….and now this. Malaysia and North Korea have historically enjoyed good relations. To be accurate, Malaysia has been one of North Korea’s best friends on the international stage. Those relations have frozen amid the current diplomatic standoff and the possibility of a complete diplomatic breakdown looms in the near future.

*Author’s note- The article on Rebuilding the USAF has been pushed off to next week in light of recent events in the Western Pacific. The focus for the rest of the week will be on what is happening there. *