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The South China Sea, for decades the site of tensions over competing territorial claims, has become a geopolitical hot spot since Beijing accelerated a series of land grabs and began installing large-scale military infrastructure on artificial islands. China now stands poised to achieve dominance over the sea. Foreign policy analyst Ely Ratner outlines the geopolitical stakes of China’s bid for hegemony and suggests how American policy makers should meet the threat of Chinese ascendancy in the South China Sea.

About the Author

Ely Ratner is Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as deputy national security adviser to former US vice president Joe Biden.



The South China Sea, which carries $5 trillion in trade annually, produces 12% of the world’s catch from its vast fisheries, and boasts valuable oil and gas reserves, is one of the world’s most important waterways. Six countries – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have long disputed claims to land features in the sea and associated rights in surrounding waters.

China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the region’s land features, as well as maritime rights to nearly the entire sea. Although a UN tribunal found these claims to...

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