Right now, China wants to assert claims over the South China Sea. It’s the power in the area. But other nations also have claims to parts of the area that China’s claiming.
The way it’s put by nations other than China is that China is building a pool on their property. Like, wtf, China? This is our property, you gtfo.
The way China puts it, there’s a bunch of hobos camping on China’s lawn. Like, wtf, nations? This is our property, you gtfo.
There’s a bit of back and forth as China pushes civilian and military traffic into contested areas. If China can successfully swamp an area with traffic, it has a stronger claim on the area, roughly under the idea the China is using the area, so should have the rights to it. For example, if China built an oceanic oil platform in a contested area, and harvested from it, it would be hard to just kick China out. After all, if the area is contested so actual ownership is disputed, and China has actual property (the oil well), then China’s claim would be hard to break. The question of the value of the oil itself is almost secondary, because China could make the claim that the resource wasn’t being used anyways, &c &c.
So China’s been trying to negotiate with the many relatively (extremely) weak powers in the area individually, so it can win with its advantageous disparity of power to the bargaining table.
The powers in the area are weak individually, but understand what China’s about, so have (I think) for the most part only gone to the bargaining table collectively. Even if a single weaker nation is willing to cede its claim, the other relatively weak nations will gang up on that weaker nation to prevent it from “caving” to China. (If a weaker nation “caved”, it could set unfortunate precedents.)
Right now China’s in the “push and shove” stage of the fight. Like, it’s conducting military exercises &c to show the rest of the world “We are teh awesomeness, gtfo our propertah!” On the other hand, allies of some of the non-China nations are also conducting military exercises, to show “We are teh awesome frends, gtfo our frends propertah!”
So it’s ALREADY a “international conflict” in a way.
But it is, as I noted earlier, unlikely to be a “flashpoint for ARMED international conflict”, unless China really pushes.
Why would China NOT push?
Because war is a real b*tch if you don’t know you’re going to win.
1. Enter small scale war and hope it doesn’t escalate. (But considering the political situation in the area, that is unlikely.)
2. Prepare for escalated war. If coalition forces back down from China, China can grab a huge slice of Asia. If coalition forces stand up to China and lose, China can grab an even huger slice. If coalition forces stand up to China and eventually quit because of war weariness, China stands to lose a chunk of civilians, but will still likely grab a huge slice of Asia, and lasting crappy negotiations with much of the rest of the world for a long time to come. If coalition forces stand up to China and win, China gets chopped up like Nazi Germany. In any event, escalated war would lead to internal problems in China. China’s political situation is not “delicate”, but there’s been a decent amount of unrest in the country that a war would accentuate.
2A. So what it really comes down to is China’s assessment of its internal ability to sustain a war and external ability to resist it. (External ability including willingness not simply troop counts!) If China thinks it can make a grab, it will.
2B. Even IF China makes a successful grab, it won’t necessarily be able to maintain it. Consider, particularly, India, a growing power in the region. It could be that India would “liberate” (take control of) territories that were “invaded” (taken control of) by China. (Of course, you could call this an Indian re-invasion.)
3. Play the diplomatic game. I’d guess the big players would be China (ofc), India, and North Korea, with Pakistan, Japan, and South Korea as important adjuncts either with close ties to one of the powers closely involved, and/or geographical proximity to South China Sea.
In terms of a large conventional military, India will be the major secondary (but in time possibly primary) player with the most independence and ability to either make a significant agreement or disagreement with China.
China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are all nuclear powers.
North Korea is dependent on China. My guess is that the current political situation there is partially because of the change of regime from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, but also very possibly because China’s been secretly pressing North Korea to test military reactions in the region. (It could also very easily be the case that North Korea is trying to break its dependency on China. Or both.)
My prediction for the short term, considering the current balance of power & relations, is that nothing will happen, and that nothing will continue to happen. At some point, some nation will start exploiting resources in the South China Sea (rather than passively laying a claim), at which point there will be a lot of military exercises, and probably some low level armed conflict, but almost certainly no military escalation, and peaceful resolution before too long. (This does not rule out armed conflict. I anticipate up to a few hundred could die in various “incidents.”)
The likely short term “flashpoint” would be if North Korea got maneuvered into doing something stupid. This could set off a bunch of nastiness during which China could push a claim on the South China Sea, but the “flashpoint” would center on North Korea. It might be that China would try to engineer a North Korea incident for precisely this purpose.
The longer term “flashpoint” would be conflict between India’s growing power and China. I don’t expect this to become a serious situation at least for the next ten years. India could ally with China to make joint pressure and claims into the South China Sea, or could gather other less powerful nations to conflict with China (and thereby improve India’s diplomatic relations with those other countries and their allies), or could enter into more direct conflict &c &c. But again, considering current power balance and trends, I don’t expect this for a while.