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

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