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.
Nevertheless, both China and the United States are making commitments in the South China Sea that each may find difficult to back away from. Over the past two weeks, these commitments have generated a war of words that analysts of the relationship have found troubling. The key problems focus on China’s efforts to expand (or create) islands in the Spratlys, which could theoretically provide the basis for claims to territorial waters. The insistence of the United States on freedom of navigation could bring these tensions to a boil. Here are three ways in which tensions in the South China Sea might lead to conflict.
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.