Three ways China and the United States could go to warMichael Auslin, Ph.D
(AEIdeas) – After years of being a focus of interest for specialists, the South China Sea is now getting major attention from the media. The latest is a CNN report that a US Navy P-8 surveillance plane was warned away from some of China’s manmade islands in the Spratly Island chain by the Chinese Navy. Beijing has not yet declared a formal air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, unlike the one it established over part of the East China Sea in 2013, nor could it today enforce such a zone effectively with its current fighters. However, with its reclamation activities continuing, and the Obama Administration apparently having decided to challenge China’s claims, the US and China are now potentially closer to an armed encounter than at any time in the past 20 years. Here are three ways the US and China could go to war.
1. Accident. The US Navy is reportedly considering sending ships within 12 miles of the manmade islands, thereby entering into what China claims is now sovereign territory. With Chinese naval and maritime patrol vessels in the waters, intimidation or harassment of US ships could lead to a collision, with each side responding in turn. This is what China has done to ships of other nations, and an accident could lead to a stand-off. In the air, the Spratlys lie about 800 miles from China’s shores, already within the combat radius of China’s most advanced fighter jet (though Beijing has yet to show that it can effectively oppose US air patrols). More worrisome, China is building airstrips on its islands, and may soon be able to launch planes from them to patrol the skies. Similarly, once its aircraft carrier is operational with an air wing, it can easily patrol the area. Any of those developments would dramatically increase the chances of a mid-air collision, such as happened in 2001 between a Chinese fighter and a US Navy surveillance plane.
2. Premeditation. Beijing has staked its geopolitical reputation in Southeast Asia on its claims to the South China Sea and now the building of the islands, which already cover more than 2,000 acres. As I wrote in National Review last week, unless they decide to back down, and risk losing influence in Asia, China’s leaders may decide that stopping American incursion into their newly claimed waters early on is the best opportunity to make the risks to Washington seem too high. Once Chinese airplanes are on the islands, then they may decide to shadow US planes and prevent them from flying in “restricted” skies, for the same reason, leaving the US to decide how far to respond. Thus, they may force a confrontation, to try and get the Obama Administration to back down from getting involved in another military situation while it is dealing with the Middle East and Ukraine.
3. Indirect Conflict. China may well judge that it is too risky to directly challenge US ships and planes, but that it can make the same point by intercepting those of other countries. Already, the Philippines has claimed that China warned off its surveillance planes, and China has had regular maritime run-ins with the Philippines and Vietnam. It may decide to stop foreign ships from passing by its new islands, or it may soon try to escort less advanced foreign planes out the skies above its islands. A direct conflict between China and any of its neighbors would, at this point, have a good chance of bringing in the US, in order to credibly claim that it is upholding international law (and, in the case of the Philippines, coming to the aid of a treaty ally).
Beijing and Washington are each laying down redlines in the South China Sea, making the upholding of their claims a priority. In this, they are maneuvering themselves into a potential conflict. With no de-escalation mechanisms, and deep distrust on both sides, the more capable China becomes in defending its claimed territory, the more risks the US will face in challenging those claims. That is why each is trying to define the boundaries and set the pattern of behavior before the other does. That may not ensure that there will be a military encounter, but it steadily raises the chances of one.