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

As US Strikes Syria, China Sees Parallels at Home

Beijing is debating how much support to give international coalition against IS militants and trying to figure out how many Chinese nationals may have joined group overseas More

CDC: Ebola Could Infect 1.4 Million by January

US health officials say if efforts to curb the outbreak are not increased, cases will soar dramatically by early next year More

Video USAID Provides $231 Million for Girls Education in 5 Countries

US Agency for International Development partners with celebrities to call attention to importance of education for girls worldwide More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid