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.

You May Like

Changing Under Pressure, IS ‘Potent’ as Ever

US intel officials describe Ramadi's fall as concerning, but say it isn't emblematic of larger effort to degrade IS capabilities More

Nigeria Fuel Shortage Shows Fragility of Africa’s Oil Giant

Although it is the largest oil producer in Africa, country has nearly ran out of fuel it needs to power its generators, cars and airplanes over the past week More

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Cari
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
May 27, 2015 9:31 PM
Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs