The South China Sea is likely to persist as a source of tension both between China and its Southeast Asian maritime neighbors, and between China and the United States in 2015. China’s land reclamation activities, which are taking place at six of the seven reefs under Chinese control in the Spratly Island chain, will advance next year, revealing Beijing’s plans and intentions. It is likely that ongoing dredging will create airstrips and harbors that will give the Chinese navy and air force greater reach. China will thus increase its ability to patrol and exert greater control over the South China Sea. Moreover, its China will expand its capabilities to monitor a potential air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which may result in a decision to establish an ADIZ similar to the ADIZ that Beijing declared in the East China Sea in November 2013.
A major flashpoint to watch will be Second Thomas Shoal, where a small contingent of Filipino marines stand watch on a rusting World War II vessel that the Philippines beached on the submerged reef in 1999. Chinese patrols keep close watch on the Shoal, permitting the Philippines to re-supply the troops there with food and water, but preventing the delivery of building materials that could be used to reinforce the vessel. Sometime in 2015, that vessel is likely to slide off the Shoal into the water, which could precipitate a crisis as the Philippines launches a rescue mission to pull its marines out of the water and possibly tries to run another ship aground on the Shoal, and Chinese law-enforcement ships move in to attempt to seize control of the reef.