China, the U.S. and the South China Sea – what could go wrong?

Jul 1, 2022
Illustration showing US continent and China both in colours of their flags and two hand that a re pointing at each from each
The U.S. and China have recognised the fragility of the situation and are scrambling to try and stabilise relations. Image: PxHere

The U.S. and China continue their standoff in the South China Sea.  Although they are struggling to set a ‘floor’ and guardrails for their military interactions, there is much that could go wrong.

Southeast Asia is on tenterhooks anticipating how rapidly deteriorating US-China relations will manifest in the South China Sea. There is much that could go wrong and precious little that could go right.

US-China relations are now the worst since President Richard Nixon opened modern relations in 1972. Both realise their relationship is “defined by a competition between different government systems—authoritarianism and liberal democracy”. Worse, their conflicting idea of ‘the international order’ and interests– and their strategies to further them — are coming face to face in the South China Sea.

Perhaps the most dangerous current flashpoint is that exacerbated by intensified Chinese military activities –especially those of its air force–to the southwest of Taiwan in what Taiwan claims is its Air Defence Identification Zone. This is likely a response to recently enhanced US political and military support for Taiwan.

In the early stages of a conflict, Taiwan’s military outposts on Pratas or Taiping in the South China Sea could be targets. Taiwan’s response with possible US-backing makes them trip wires for a US –China clash. Although this flashpoint is driven by China’s redlines on what it views as Taiwan’s movement towards independence, a military confrontation could draw in US forces in and near the South China Sea setting off a wider conflict.

Other possible triggers are embedded in the conflicting claims to rocks, ocean space and resources and the US public commitment to back China’s rival claimants in the face of what it calls China’s ‘bullying’. China has shown its hand and is baring its teeth. Rival claimants are recoiling in fear and defiance.

The U.S. is taking political advantage by criticising it and verbally supporting the ‘victims’ of China’s actions. But in doing so, the U.S. is making it more difficult to demure or refuse requests for military help from friends, partners and allies that are being intimidated by China.

In one likely scenario the U.S. is dragged into a kinetic conflict with China via its 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines. The new Philippines leader, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – eager to show his mettle and under pressure from Americanophile military leaders – decides to use the Philippine navy and coast guard to confront the Chinese navy or coast guard. A clash ensues. The Philippines asks its US ally for backup. The U.S. then has to choose between a military clash with China or losing its credibility in the region.

Similar situations could arise with other rival claimants. In April 2020, the U.S. sent warships to backup a Malaysian sponsored oil rig being intimidated in Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone by a Chinese government survey ship accompanied by several China coast guard ships. Justifying the action, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral John Aquilino said “The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians.”

Other scenarios involve a clash arising from U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea. In October 2018, during a FONOP, there was a near collision between the US destroyer Decatur and a Chinese warship. The Pentagon accused the Chinese Navy of “using an unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre” forcing the Decatur to change course to avoid a collision. But China believes that US FONOPs are a threat to its sovereignty, integrity and security.

Then there is the constant danger of another serious international incident involving US and allies close-in air, surface and subsurface intelligence gathering probes along China’s coasts. China complains that they are a threat to its security and sends warships and warplanes to warn them off. In 2001 a US intelligence plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided off Hainan. The Chinese jet crashed into the sea killing the pilot and the damaged US plane made an emergency landing on Hainan. The region and the world held their collective breath while cooler heads negotiated the release of the crew. There have been several near misses since then and it seems like it is only a matter of time before another such serious incident.

Indeed, on 5 June, the Australian Defence Department Richard Marles stated that on 26 May ”a Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) P-8A maritime surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 fighter aircraft during a routine maritime surveillance activity in international airspace in the South China Sea region”.

The Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles said the Chinese aircraft flew very close to the P-8A , released flares , and then cut across its nose and released a “bundle of chaff” that was ingested by the P-8A’s engines. Australia said this was “dangerous” and “threatened the safety of the aircraft and crew”. China’s Defence Ministry responded that “the Australian military aircraft seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security and the countermeasures taken by the Chinese military were reasonable and lawful.”

The recent atmospherics of the US-China relationship make such incidents more likely. At the June 10-12 Shangri-la Dialogue dustup between US Defence Minister Lloyd Austin and China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe, the latter warned that US attempts to form exclusive blocks to contain China would “split the region and undermine the interests of all”. He said “ If you want to talk, we should talk with mutual respect. If you want to engage, we should seek peaceful coexistence. If you want to cooperate, we should seek mutual benefits and win-win results. However, if you want confrontation, we will fight to the very end”.

A basic problem is that the U.S. refuses to recognise China as a peer. As Sourabh Gupta of the Institute for China America Studies says “This has as much to do with the difference in political systems as it has to do with white ethnocentrism”. The hard reality is that both China and the U.S. (and its allies) realise that their relationship has become a battle for regional and global supremacy. Given that context, Southeast Asia should indeed be worried.

The best that can be hoped for is a continuation of the leaky status quo. The U.S. and China have recognised the fragility of the situation and are scrambling to try and stabilise relations by setting a ‘floor’ and ‘guardrails’ to prevent an incident from spiralling into a wider conflict. So far they have not reached agreement on such measures. Time and patience are running out and tension is mounting. Given China’s ambitions and the US unwillingness to compromise and co-exist with China, the region and humanity may well suffer a slow motion Armageddon. The South China Sea is where it may begin– or be avoided.

This piece first appeared in the Asia Times

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