News / Asia

Will South China Sea Disputes Lead to War?

A Chinese warship launches a missile during a live-ammunition military drill held last year in the South China Sea.
A Chinese warship launches a missile during a live-ammunition military drill held last year in the South China Sea.
Terry Wing
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Beijing to push China toward a diplomatic resolution over territorial disputes it has with its South China Sea neighbors.  But China is pushing back.
Concerns over the matter have experts talking about the potential for a military conflict.

“The risk of conflict in the South China Sea is significant,” said analyst Bonnie S. Glaser in an article written for the Council on Foreign Affairs last April.  Since then, the tensions have only grown worse.

The United States has claimed its neutrality in the regional disputes. Before arriving in Beijing Tuesday, Secretary Clinton told reporters in Jakarta that Washington was looking for solutions that would bring peace, stability and respect for freedom of navigation in the region.

But it was Clinton’s suggestion that Southeast Asian nations put up a united front that has China riled.  

While aggressively staking out 75 percent of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, Beijing has said it will only negotiate with countries individually.  It’s a position that gives China obvious advantages in dealings with smaller nations.  

While negotiations have been a non-starter, there have been stand-offs involving military vessels.  Heated words from Vietnam and the Philippines aimed at China’s moves have caused alarm in the region. 

Tensions have been exacerbated by the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” which Beijing is beginning to take as a challenge to its own interests there.

Finding a quick resolution satisfactory to all the competing interests in the South China Sea is gathering increasing importance.

The Risk of Miscalculation or Accident is Rising

“The problem is that both sides are nearing red lines that have been drawn, so the margin for error is narrowing,” said David Arase, Professor of Politics at Pomona College and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center at Nanjing University.

“A minor military clash in the South China Sea is, rather worryingly, a distinct and growing possibility,” according to Ian Storey from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Storey, an expert on Asia Pacific maritime security, goes even further.  He envisions the possibility of differences over fishing rights or energy exploration turning into a military clash.

 “Caused by miscalculation, misperception or miscommunication, it’s just a question of time before one these skirmishes results in loss of life,” Storey said.

A South China Sea War is Unlikely

But that doesn’t mean a war. Storey said an escalation into full-blown conflict is unlikely.

“It is in no country’s interests to spill blood or treasure over this issue – the costs far outweigh the benefits,” Storey said.  

Other experts agree.

James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College says admires how China has been able to get its way in spreading it claims of sovereignty without becoming a bully.

“[China] gradually consolidated the nation's maritime claims while staying well under the threshold for triggering outside -most likely American -intervention,” said Holmes.

“Is war about to break out over bare rocks? I don't think so.” writes Robert D. Kaplan, Chief Political Strategist for the geopolitical analysis group Stratfor.

Kaplan, however, doesn’t give much hope for negotiations. “The issues involved are too complex, and the power imbalance between China and its individual neighbors is too great,” he said.  For that reason, Kaplan says China holds all the cards.

Kaplan doesn’t look for Chinese military aggression against other claimants.  That, he says, would be counterproductive for its goals in the region.

“It would completely undermine its carefully crafted ‘peaceful rise’ thesis and push Southeast Asian countries into closer strategic alignment with the US,” said Kaplan.
At the same time, he said Chinese leaders probably will be unable to compromise.
“The primordial quest for status still determines the international system, and these bare rocks in the South China Sea have become, in effect, logos of nationhood,” Kaplan said.

What is China Thinking?

Trying to get inside the heads of China’s leader is a challenge, especially during a time of political turnover.

With the power transition now underway in China, some analysts are seeing signs of nationalistic tendencies.  And that, they say, could lead to a greater willingness to use force.

“If the PRC continues on its current path, it would seem that it is willing to militarize the whole South China Sea issue,” said Dean Cheng, a China military and foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation.

Cheng offers another possibility – Beijing’s current hardline policies might be DUE to the power shift.

“Once Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, et. al., have secured their position in 2013-2014,” said Cheng, “they [could] focus on domestic issues and assume a LESS hardline position.”
In that case, Cheng said it is possible the Chinese will become more conciliatory.
Defusing Asia’s biggest flashpoint would be in everyone’s interest.

“All countries have a strongly vested interest in the maintenance of freedom of navigation in Southeast Asian waters,” said Ian Storey. “Ensuring the free flow of maritime trade through the sea is especially important at a time of global economic downturn.”

Secretary Clinton’s discussions in Beijing could fall flat, or they could go a long way easing tensions.

“As long as both sides take appropriate precautionary measures, we should be okay,” said David Arase.  “The rising tension could be productive if it prompts an effort to find compromise.”

 “China and the United States both have a deep interest in dominating [the South China Sea],” says Strator’s Kaplan. 

For that reason, experts agree the two superpowers look to have the most to say about the future of the waterway.

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