National Security & Defense

Could U.S. Brinksmanship in the South China Sea Mean War with Beijing?

Flight operations aboard USS George H.W. Bush (US Navy)

The security world is buzzing over a Wall Street Journal article yesterday that the Obama administration is considering sending U.S. naval vessels and military planes into the 12-mile territorial limit of China’s newly reclaimed islands in the South China Sea.

If adopted, the U.S. moves could lead to the most direct response yet to China’s policies in Asia — but they could also spark an armed encounter between U.S. and Chinese forces pretty soon.

The U.S. is considering sending patrols into the Spratly Islands, a sprawling archipelago, largely comprised of reefs, that covers a large part of the South China Sea. Various reefs and atolls are claimed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The claimant nations have been building up facilities on the larger islands over the past few years, strengthening their claims to territory and potentially to exclusive economic zones.

Taiwan and Vietnam have been particularly active in this regard. Not surprisingly, however, China has been the most aggressive when it comes to construction. Its recent actions, building thousands of square meters of islands by dredging and reclaiming reef areas, seem to have been the final straw, causing alarm in Washington and throughout the region.

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U.S. Navy leaders, including the current and incoming commanders of Pacific Command, Admirals Samuel Locklear and Harry Harris, have long warned that China’s reclamation activities are moving it toward de facto control over the Spratlys. Next, China may declare an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the Spratlys, if not the entire South China Sea, thus complementing the one it established over the Senkaku Islands and a large swath of the East China Sea in late 2013. Given that Beijing is contesting Japan’s control over the Senkakus, the ADIZ there was seen as an attempt to intimidate Tokyo and cause it to back down from its defense of the islands. An ADIZ over the Spratlys would have largely the same intent and effect.

While Tokyo has refused to knuckle under, the nations of Southeast Asia are far less capable of defending their claims. China’s actions, such as wrestling away the South China Sea’s Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, have been largely uncontested. Instead, Manila in particular, but Vietnam and Taiwan also, have been urging Washington to get more involved in pushing back on China. It’s only the U.S., they believe, that has a realistic chance of getting China to curb its activities.

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Now the Obama administration is thinking of answering the call. It’s a move that should be welcomed throughout the region, but it does not come without risks. Already the Chinese have verbally struck back at the administration, warning that the U.S. actions would be “risky and provocative.”

The Obama administration’s move should be welcomed throughout the region, but it does not come without risks.

The chess moves here are complex. After making these signals, if the Obama administration does not go ahead with testing the territorial limits China has claimed, then it will lose credibility and make it more likely that China will push ahead with putting military installations on its islands.

If the U.S. lives up to its promise, though, then Beijing will have to decide immediately how to react. The Chinese will lose face and undo much of their reputation of strength if they do not oppose U.S. forces moving into waters or skies they claim. A face-off on the sea or, worse, in the air may be inevitable (possibly precipitated by an aggressive Chinese pilot or captain). U.S. forces will need absolutely clear rules of engagement to ensure that any Chinese responses are parried and any accidents are avoided or contained.

Beijing failed to defend the provocative ADIZ it claimed in the East China Sea after U.S. and Japanese jets flew through it, leading many to discount Beijing’s will. In the South China Sea, the stakes are higher, given China’s steady attempts to assert claims over the entire region. Yet it is manifestly in Beijing’s interest not to provoke a conflict with the U.S. Navy and Air Force. China has backed itself into a corner by taking actions that, while not illegal, clearly have the potential of shifting the balance of power in Southeast Asia. It may have miscalculated, assuming that no real response would be forthcoming from an administration that has so far avoided doing anything to antagonize it.

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Now, however, both players are committed: the U.S. to showing that its words are backed up with actions, and the Chinese to showing that it is not a paper tiger that cannot defend the territory it is claiming. It is up to the Obama administration to make the first move, but if it does so, then the risks of an armed encounter with China rise significantly over the next few months. If it does not, then Asian nations will find themselves with an emboldened China pushing ever more expansionist claims. With an already boiling Middle East and Eastern Europe, East Asia may now get added to the list of crisis hotspots.

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