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 Border Patrol Union Accused of Taking Sides on Immigration

Report alleges agents leaking info to immigration opponents, appearing at their private events; Center for Immigration Studies director defends agents' actions More

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Reporting from Somali capital for past decade, Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal has been working at one of Mogadishu's leading radio stations covering parliament More

Video Rights Monitor: Hate Groups' Use of Internet to Inflame, Recruit Growing

Wiesenthal Center's Abraham Cooper says extremists have become skilled at celebrating violence, ideology on Web More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs