Neither China nor the United States want war, at least not in the near future. China’s military buildup notwithstanding, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its components are not ready to fight the United States. The U.S., for its part, would surely prefer to avoid the chaos and uncertainty that any military conflict with China would create.
Island Hopping in the SCS
Over the past several months, China has stepped up construction of what observers are calling “The Great Wall of Sand.” This “great wall” involves expanding a group of islands in the Spratly chain so that they can support airstrips, weapons, and other permanent installations. It appears that Beijing is committed to defending these new islands as an integral parts of Chinese territory, a position that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea does not support. Washington has other ideas, and has maintained that it will carry out freedom-of-navigation patrols in areas that China claims as territorial waters.
The prospects for conflict are clear. If U.S. ships or aircraft enter waters that China claims, then Chinese sailors, soldiers, and pilots need to take great care about how they respond. A militarized response could quickly lead to escalation, especially if American forces suffer any kind of serious damage. It’s also easy to imagine scenarios in which island-building leads China to become embroiled against an ASEAN state. In such a case, a freedom-of-navigation patrol could put China in an awkward position relative to the third party.
Excitable Fighter Jocks
China and the United States have already come close to conflict over aircraft collisions. When a P-3 Orion collided a PLAN J-8 interceptor in 2001, it led to weeks of recriminations and negotiation before the crew of the P-3 was returned to the United States, and the plane was returned… in a box.
It’s easy to imagine an even more serious confrontation in the SCS. Another accidental collision would be bad enough, but if a scenario developed similar to that of the downing of KAL 007, with a Chinese fighter jock actually opening fire on an American plane, the situation could get ugly very quickly. And if an American pilot fired upon a Chinese plane, the reaction of the Chinese public could become too much for Beijing to reasonably handle.
If China decides to go ahead and declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea, matters could become even more complicated. The United States made anelaborate display of ignoring China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea, but China has greater interests and a greater presence in the South China Sea. Another declaration would almost certainly incur a similar reaction from the United States, putting American and Chinese planes into close proximity.
In the Cold War, the Soviet Union and NATO suffered innumerable submarine“near misses,” as boats hunted each other, and occasionally bumped each other, in the Atlantic, the Arctic, and the North Sea. The dynamics of U.S.-Chinese sub interaction hasn’t yet played out in quite the same way, in part because China has yet to establish a sustained SSBN patrol, and I part because Chinese boats do not range as far as their Soviet counterparts. But as the submarine force of the PLAN becomes more adventurous, submarine incidents may increase.
Many analysts are arguing that the PLAN needs to push its submarines past the first island chain in order to seriously threaten U.S. access to China’s littoral. Preparing for this would require increasing the tempo of the PLAN’s submarine operations, which would more often put China’s boats in proximity with Japanese and American subs. To be sure, Chinese submarines are loud enough that U.S. boats should have plenty of time to get out of their way, but the same could be said of Soviet boats for much of the Cold War.
If a major submarine incident happened between the United States and China, the nature of the medium might offer some hope for de-escalation (we often don’t hear about these accidents until much later). But such an incident would also put more lives and property at stake than a fighter collision.
Accidental war is rare, but not impossible. Common to all of these scenarios is the potential that Chinese (or less likely, American) public opinion might become so inflamed as to box in policymakers. If Xi Jinping, who has made assertive foreign policy a cornerstone of his administration, feels that he cannot back down and survive politically, then things could get unpredictable very quickly.
As Denny Roy has argued, China is playing offense in the South China Sea. By establishing facts on the ground (indeed, establishing “ground”), it is creating a situation in which normal U.S. behavior looks like destabilizing intervention. What’s less than clear is that Beijing fully understands the risks of this strategy, or the dangers of pushing the United States Navy on freedom of navigation, one of the long-term core interests of the United States. And given that governments sometimes don’t even understand that they’re playing a dangerous game until they find themselves in the middle of it, a great deal of caution is warranted.
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Crew members onboard a Chinese coast guard vessel are pictured on the South China Sea,
American experts and investors are closely watching political, military and economic developments in theSouth China Sea. Some observers are worried that China’s territorial claims and activities in the area could lead to a war. But other people disagree.
This week, China and the United States exchanged strong words about Chinese efforts to build and develop islands in the South China Sea. Chinese crews have been creating airfields on what was, until recently, underwater land.
A week ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter criticized China’s actions. He accused Chinese officials of being “out of step” with international values.
“There should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants. We also oppose any further militarization of disputed features. We all know there's no military solution to the South China Sea disputes.”
He also made it clear that the U.S. would not recognize any Chinese attempt to declare a 22-kilometer territorial sea limit around disputed islands or coralreefs.
This photo taken through a window of a military plane shows China's apparent reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 11, 2015.
China has expressed strong dissatisfaction with U.S.military flights near its newly-developed islands.
At a conference in Singapore, a top Chinese military official defended his country’s efforts to develop the South China Sea. He called the work, “justified, legitimate and reasonable.”
Another official, Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo criticized Secretary Carter’s comments about new sea limits as “groundless.”
“The freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not at all an issue because the freedom has never been affected.”
Expert and investor warn of larger conflict
Gordon Chang wrote a book called “The Coming Collapse of China.” He says the South China Sea could become what he calls the next “Great War Zone.”
Mr. Chang spoke recently at a meeting of the U.S. Air Force Association, a private group. He said the United States will soon answer China’s actions in the South China Sea.
In his words, “the U.S. Navy is clearly going to test China’s claims of exclusion of the South China Sea.” He said the United States has to do so. He noted that for the past 200 years, U.S. officials have defended the right of ships to sail freely in international waters. He said China is now testing that policy.
Maps showing the claims of six Asian countries contesting all or parts of the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea.
Mr. Chang said China sees the South China Sea as one of its main interests and does not believe it should negotiate on the issue.
Rick Fisher is a senior research fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. He told VOA that the world should closely watch the development of nuclear weapons in China and North Korea. He said that while North Korea seems quiet now, it will probably use the South China Sea disputes to show its power.
Mr. Fisher said that as soon as there is a crisis, North Korea could become very dangerous.
“As soon as North Korea can demonstrate that it can fire a nuclear missile,” he said, “then (the) North…becomes a factor.” He noted that North Korea could decide to use the tensions in the South China Sea for its own purposes and put greater pressure on the United States. He thinks it could use this pressure to demand action from South Korea or the U.S. government.
Mr. Fisher admits that North Korea and the Chinese government do not agree about everything. But he said the two sides share and act on the same Communist beliefs.
Billionaire George Soros is a well-known American investor. He recently expressed concern about the Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Hespoke at a meeting of the World Bank. He said that if China suffers economic problems, it could lead to a third world war. He said a conflict could strengthenChina’s national unity and ease the economic difficulties.
Mr. Soros said there is a high possibility of a military conflict between China and Japan. He says because the U.S. has promised to defend Japan, it couldbe forced to take military action against China. He says the result could be World War III.
Tad Daley works at the Center for War/Peace Studies. He is the director of aprogram that seeks to end war. He disputes claims that the South China Sea issues are a result of China’s plans for use of nuclear weapons. He says China seems to only want the ability to answer a nuclear attack, not to launch the first strike.
He says in the 1970s, China told American officials that if they launched nuclear strikes, China would still have the ability to answer. China said it would be able to hit the U.S. cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco with its remaining missiles.