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

    US Watching as North Korea Opens Biggest Political Meeting in Decades

    As Workers' Party Congress opens, Washington anticipating possibility of another missile launch or nuclear test as top officials gather

    Video Pop Icon Prince Quietly Helped Afghan Orphans for Years

    He sent thousands of dollars to help an aid group rebuild a training center for orphan boy and girl scouts in Kabul, but kept his involvement secret

    Britain’s Muslims See London Mayor Race as Victory

    Mere running of 45-year-old former government minister and son of Pakistani immigrants Sadiq Khan seen by many as turning point

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Donations Rescue Afghan Parents, Children From Forced Labori
    X
    May 05, 2016 6:44 PM
    A Facebook campaign organized by a VOA radio host raised 150,000 Afghan rupees to rescue a family from forced labor at a brick kiln in Nangarhar province – the result of the father’s unpaid debt. Video by a VOA reporter in Jalalabad went viral this week and triggered the Facebook campaign.
    Video

    Video Donations Rescue Afghan Parents, Children From Forced Labor

    A Facebook campaign organized by a VOA radio host raised 150,000 Afghan rupees to rescue a family from forced labor at a brick kiln in Nangarhar province – the result of the father’s unpaid debt. Video by a VOA reporter in Jalalabad went viral this week and triggered the Facebook campaign.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora