By Ian Bremmer
May 28, 2015

China’s Sea Change

Washington recently began launching surveillance flights over China’s activities in the South China Sea. The move shows that Beijing’s aggressiveness–building artificial islands and airstrips in the sea–has finally caught Washington’s attention. But it’s also a sign that China is ready to expand its geopolitical influence–and the U.S. will be hard pressed to stop it.

A hotly contested zone through which roughly a third of the world’s shipping passes each year, the South China Sea is populated by dozens of islands, many of them uninhabited and a few that are no more than a collection of rocks. But those islands are the object of much contention by their neighboring countries, both for defense purposes and for the significant oil and gas reserves believed to lie underneath them. For a country as energy thirsty as China, the payoff of controlling the South China Sea could be big. For countries that feel threatened by China–and nearly every other nation that borders the sea does–the potential for a buffer zone is just as attractive.

Despite the military posturing, neither Washington nor Beijing wants a real military conflict. Both countries’ strategic interests are aligned toward keeping the relative peace in the region. Neither wants their extensive trade and economic relations damaged by conflict.

That’s why the American escalation so far has been appropriate. Washington is making it clear that it isn’t taking sides in territorial disputes. The U.S. wants to preserve freedom of navigation, ensure the free flow of commerce and uphold international law–all while skirting direct military confrontation with China. While the U.S. has made it clear to China that it will intervene in an East China Sea conflict if necessary–where it is treaty-bound to come to Japan’s aid–Washington has made no similar pledges to its partners in the South China Sea, like the Philippines. China has not missed the hesitation. On May 26 Beijing released a strategy paper outlining its intention to increase “open seas protection,” which means the Chinese navy will expand its limited offshore operations, while the air force will shift from a defensive stance to both defense and offense.

In the short term China will likely complete its current reef-reclamation projects but won’t expand into new territory. Both Beijing and Washington save face while keeping the status quo essentially intact. The long term is another story. So long as the South China Sea remains in dispute, the risk of confrontation will grow. If China becomes stronger, it will grow confident enough to test the resolve of its neighbors and the U.S. If China becomes weaker, it will look to territorial conflicts as a way to rally public support. Either way, America’s next President will find a major challenge in the warm waters of the South China Sea.

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy

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IRAN

‘Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh.’

MAJOR GENERAL QASEM SOLEIMANI, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, addressing members of his country’s armed forces in Iran on May 24; Soleimani, referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym, Daesh, said only Iran was committed to reversing the extremist group’s recent advances in Iraq

DATA

THE WORLD’S MOST HACKED

Cyberattacks are getting more frequent and costly, according to a Ponemon Institute study of 11 nations. Here’s a sampling of how many records are hacked on average in each data breach:

[This article consists of 6 illustrations. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

29,199

United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia

28,070

U.S.

22,902

Brazil

21,695

U.K.

19,214

Japan

= 2,000 documents

Starved Earth

INDIA

A farmer sits on his parched land in the village of Gauribidanur in India’s southern Karnataka state on May 26, as a brutal heat wave continued to blister the country, claiming at least 1,100 lives and causing roads to melt in New Delhi. Pre-monsoon showers were forecast to soon provide relief to the south, where temperatures in some areas neared 122°F (50°C), but rain may not reach northern India for several weeks.

THE EXPLAINER

Where Gay Marriage Might Become Legal Next

On May 22, Ireland became the 19th country to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide and the first to do so by popular vote. The wide margin of approval, with some 62% voting yes, was all the more striking in a predominantly Catholic nation where homosexuality was illegal until 1993. Here are other countries poised to follow suit:

Australia

Labor Party opposition leaders were inspired by the Irish vote to introduce a bill in coming weeks to remove any impediments to same-sex marriage.

Germany

Opposition parties are pushing the ruling center-right alliance for an open vote to expand the country’s civil partnership law passed in 2001.

Italy

The Democratic Party of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wants to pass a civil-unions law this summer, as a post-Ireland poll showed 51% now in favor of gay marriage.

U.S.

The Supreme Court will decide if gay-marriage bans are unconstitutional by July, following its 2013 decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

SAUDI ARABIA

88

Number of executions carried out in Saudi Arabia so far this year, already surpassing the total number in 2014; Amnesty International called the increase under Saudi’s new King Salman a “macabre spike”

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DISASTER

A volcano in the Galápagos Islands erupted for the first time in 33 years, threatening the unique ecosystem that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The island is home to the world’s only colony of pink iguanas; officials said they were not in immediate danger.

PROTESTS

A new wave of demonstrations across Australia is planned for June after the government of Western Australia moved to close remote Aboriginal settlements, saying it could no longer afford to subsidize communities plagued by social problems such as alcohol and drug abuse.

CONTROVERSY

A radio station in Denmark was heavily criticized by animal-rights groups after a DJ beat a baby rabbit to death with a bicycle pump live on air on May 25. Radio 24syv said the stunt was intended to “expose the vast hypocrisy surrounding our relationship with animals.”

This appears in the June 08, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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