Risk of Great Power Conflict in South China Sea is Rising, Experts Say

The risk of the United States and China stumbling in to conflict in the South China Sea is rising as their military exercises intensify and different nations adopt a more muscular presence in this key regional hotspot, experts say.

An increasingly assertive China has been sending survey ships in waters where other claimant states want to search for oil, and it has repeatedly deployed coastguard and paramilitary fishing vessels along with them. On top of it all, in early July China held naval drills near the Paracel Islands that drew protests from Vietnam and the Philippines.

If China’s show of force was intended to test Washington’s resolve, it appears to possess backfired. The U.S. and its allies are pushing back. For the first time in years, the U.S. has in the past week sent two aircraft carriers into the South China Sea on a workout that was within sight of China’s own drill in the Paracels. Those carrier strike groups exercised with the navy of Japan, and both Japan and Australia have unveiled new defense strategies in recent weeks that highlight concerns over China.

The rival military maneuvers at sea are echoed on the diplomatic stage. This week, U.S, Japan and Australia defense officials denounced the “continued militarization of disputed features,” the “coercive use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia,” and the disruption of other countries’ to resources. That drew a stiff response from China, which accused “non-regional countries” of threatening stability.

Notwithstanding the growing strains in the U.S.-China relationship – Hong Kong, the sanctioning of Chinese officials over atrocities in Xinjiang, or trade disputes — RAND Corporation analyst Andrew Scobell said the U.S. and China tend to presume the risk of conflict in the South China Sea is low — and that presents a danger in itself.

“It worries me because that gives both sides a sense that they can do things without worrying about the potential for escalation,” said Scobell, who is also professor at Marine Corps University.

Olli Pekka Suorsa, an investigation fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, shared concern within the growing possibility of an unintended conflict breaking out.

“With both China and the United States deploying significant numbers of ships and military aircraft in close proximity with one another, the risk of collision is an ever-present danger,” Suorsa said. “And with tensions running as high as they are today, an accident or miscalculation is never far away.”

An accident is all it takes

All professionals interviewed because of this article say the most likely spark for fighting in the South China Sea is a major accident.

Scobell harked back again to the EP-3 incident in 2001, whenever a U.S. intelligence-gathering plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in mid-air over the Paracels, causing the death of a Chinese pilot and forcing the U.S. plane to land at China’s Hainan province, where its crew was detained.

That incident was defused successfully, but Scobell thinks any situation now will be more volatile, and there would be more pressure on both the U.S. and China to do something hastily.

As the U.S. patrols the skies and sea more often and China continues its paramilitary activity, the chance of ships colliding or wanting to force the other person to back increases, multiple experts say. In the big event of an emergency, there are ‘hotlines’ between China and the United States, but Scobell said this direct line of communication is imperfect, slow, and sometimes frozen.

“What gets U.S. officials frustrated is that people have this hotline or you have someone’s telephone number, you’ve exchanged business cards, you’ve built a relationship and then in a crisis the American decisionmaker picks up the device to call his Chinese point of contact and nobody answers. That’s what often happens,” Scobell said.

The basis for this, in accordance with him, is a difference in culture. Chinese military officials do not wish to be responsible for giving an answer to Americans within a crisis.

“From the perspective of a Chinese military commander, any initiative or modest deviation from one’s orders is not rewarded, you’re really worried about being slapped down for stepping out of line,” that he said.

That has big implications for what sort of Chinese naval officer would respond to a major accident at sea involving a U.S. vessel. Whereas the U.S. Navy has a culture where officers and captains have significant flexibility in how they execute their orders, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has far less.

“When you have rigid orders, and circumstances change, and also you feel like you cannot deviate from those orders, that is where in actuality the danger is,” Scobell said.

A crewman from the Vietnamese coastguard ship looks out at sea as Chinese coastguard vessels give chase to Vietnamese ships near an oil rig in the South China Sea in a file photo from July 2014.
Credit: Reuters

Containing risk in Southeast Asia

The South China Sea is viewed as a hotspot for good reason. In addition to the plethora of tiny land features disputed by six governments, the waters are heavily fished and a potential source of undersea oil and gas. The region is crisscrossed by shipping routes crucial for world trade, hence the concern paid to it by outside countries.

“If allowed to proceed unchecked,” said Hunter Stires, a fellow at the U.S. Naval War College, “China’s maritime insurgency will lead to a closed, Sinocentric, and unfree sea, one where avaricious coastal states can fence off and lay claim to ocean areas nowhere near them to keep the ships and mariners of other countries out.”

The last major shooting match in the South China Sea was in 1988 when China and Vietnam clashed over Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys, which left some 64 Vietnamese dead and China in control of the feature.

But, historically, nations have was able to contain the risk of conflict. In April, a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by the Chinese coastguard. In February, China was accused of training a radar gun on a Philippine Navy vessel, which prompted Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr., to file a diplomatic protest.

Neither incident escalated, and once and for all reason, in accordance with Dr. Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“It is in no one’s interests, neither China’s nor anyone in Southeast Asia, to escalate incidents into military confrontation,” she said.

But without any discernable progress in resolving the myriad territorial disputes in the South China Sea, few observers are optimistic about nations reaching a durable solution to force away conflict.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has aspired for almost two decades to negotiate with China a binding Code of Conduct, or CoC, that would mitigate the risk of accidents at sea. ASEAN members Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Indonesia all have claims to the South China Sea or borders that conflict with China’s claims. Late last month, the bloc reiterated their desire to complete those negotiations.

But Dr. Le Thu said that it had been “wrong to hang on to the hope” that the CoC would make the South China Sea more safe.

“The same week when the Senior Ministers’ Meeting between China and ASEAN reassured about each other’s good intentions and cooperation towards the CoC, China also sent ships into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and kept harassing other Southeast Asians,” she noted.

Taking sides

Some Southeast Asian nations which lack the capacity to endure China believe stepping up cooperation with the United States is the easiest method to safeguard their interests, in accordance with Mohamad Mizan Aslam, a geopolitical strategy expert at the Universiti Malaysia Perlis.

Scobell said one of probably the most remarkable regional developments this season has been the Philippines’ backtracking on plans to dial straight back its military ties with the U.S., its treaty ally. “Beijing was starting to believe it had lured Manila away from Washington,” that he said.

Manila shelved its sudden abrogation of a visiting forces agreement with Washington on June 1, and is now taking a stronger line against China’s actions in the South China Sea.

However, ASEAN countries remain wary about a lot of of a U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, where there is the possibility of them to be dragged into a U.S.-China conflict.

Dr. Le Thu said countries in the region “would be more comfortable with the U.S. that has a strategy and longer-term plan how to manage the tensions rather than fueling it for its own benefit.” She was alluding to the idea that the U.S. is primarily motivated by its strategic contest with China.

ASEAN nations are traditionally loathe to pick sides. Suorsa said the more the Sino-U.S rivalry intensifies, the more pressure both Washington and Beijing are likely to exert over smaller powers to decide on between them.

“High-level officials’ insistence that the U.S. will not force smaller powers pick sides is also losing credibility,” Suorsa warned.

The perception that the South China Sea has become a venue for that great power rivalry was echoed with a retired Vietnamese general this week. Senior Lt. Gen. Vo Tien Trung, a former member of the Communist Party Central Committee, warned that the recent military drills by China and the U.S. have “created instability and a tense situation.”

“Such actions of the two countries’ militaries create the risk of a military clash leading to instability in the South China Sea region,” that he told state-run Dan Viet newspaper. “So we ask both sides to exercise utmost restraint.”

Additional reporting by Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.