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Armed conflict in the South China Sea by 2019?

In February 2017, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated a commitment to diplomacy in the South China Sea - a region recognized as one of the world’s most volatile international hotspots - while asserting that China has overstepped its bounds in the region.

The sea is known by different names in the countries surrounding it, primarily China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Each of the nations has asserted territorial claims over portions of the sea and its islands, claims which overlap. At stake is control of the busy fishing and shipping region, as well as the vast estimated oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea floor.

The Spratly Islands compose some of the most hotly contested territory. The 14 islands and around 100 reefs and atolls are occupied by military personnel from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Disputes over the South China Sea date back to the 1940s, and continue today. China has emerged as the most aggressive claimant, and has built military fortifications, airstrips, and artificial islands in the sea. In 2011 an Indian military vessel in the sea was warned via radio that it was entering Chinese waters.

In July 2016, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled in favor of the Philippines that China had no historical right to its claimed territory, typically known as the "nine-dash-line" map. Neither China nor Taiwan has accepted the ruling.

Comments from world leaders suggest that the territorial disputes in the sea could erupt into armed conflict. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in his confirmation hearings: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

In response, from China's Global Times newspaper: "If Trump's diplomatic team shapes future Sino-US ties as it is doing now, the two sides had better prepare for a military clash."

TIllerson's remarks have been walked back, particularly by Mattis' statements on his Asian tour, yet tensions in the region remain high.

Will armed conflict begin in the South China Sea before 2019?

This question will resolve as positive if a credible, verified news outlet reports that an exchange of weapon fire occurred in the South China Sea, between any state actors, to enforce territorial claims, on or before December 31, 2018.

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