A mysterious incident involving an American nuclear submarine in the South China Sea has analysts weighing the risk that a similar mishap — perhaps involving a U.S. treaty partner — could spark an unwanted conflagration between the United States and China.
Experts say the danger is growing as Beijing aggressively advances its territorial claims in the South and East China seas while Western nations counter with a growing number of naval passages designed to support freedom of navigation through the contested waters.
The stakes were further raised last month with the announcement of the new AUKUS alliance among the United States, Britain and Australia, which will provide Australia with 10 new nuclear-powered submarines.
In the latest incident, a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine hit an unknown underwater object on October 2, the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet said in a news release. The Navy said crewmembers aboard its Seawolf-class submarine USS Connecticut were hurt, though no one's life was threatened, and that it is investigating what happened.
But an analysis published on the Chinese state-controlled CGTN news website said last week that the U.S. use of nuclear submarines to "secretly infringe on China's maritime territory in the South China Sea runs the risk of triggering a war between these two major powers by miscalculation."
The CGTN analyst is not the only one who is worried. Other experts tell VOA they fear that a more serious incident between China and a U.S. treaty ally such as Japan or the Philippines could, under certain circumstances, trigger a severe response from Washington.
The exact U.S. recourse would depend on the details of the actual incident, said Scott Harold, Washington-based senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation research organization.
"Is a bump an attack or does it have to result in an injury or an actual death or a sinking?" Harold asked. "I think those would be areas where U.S. policymakers and in particular U.S. defense officials and military officers would be very quickly trying to assess what is the intention, what is the threshold, is the host nation — meaning the third-party Japan or the Philippines — is it able to respond without the United States?"
The U.S. Indo Pacific Command in Hawaii did not answer requests for comment on the risk of accidents near China.
China's neighbors, US alliances
China calls about 90% of the South China Sea its own despite competing claims from the Philippines and three other Southeast Asian countries that are sympathetic to the West. Beijing claims all of Taiwan, a self-ruled island that's supported by Washington, and vies with Japan for control over parts of the East China Sea.
Successive U.S. presidents have seen their Asian allies as buffers against China in any showdown between superpowers. Treaties obligate Washington to consider helping its allies in military crises.
Increasing numbers of Chinese military flights near Taiwan, where the island's air force sometimes chases the planes away, is raising the specter of a mishap now, analysts believe. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act gives Washington the option of intervening on Taipei's behalf.
"How long do you keep poking your fist in Taiwan's face before you miscalculate at one point?" asked Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "The aircraft could cross a line, or Taiwan's air defenses, which have been turned on and locked onto some of these flights as a warning, could lead to firing missiles."
News reports this month saying the United States has stationed troops in Taiwan for at least a year could prompt an angry China to send more planes toward the island, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
The Philippines, for its part, might risk an accident with Chinese vessels even if warned against it by the United States, Oh said. The 2022 Philippine presidential race could be a trigger point, he added, if Sino-Philippine relations become a campaign issue. Vessels from China and the Philippines got into a protracted standoff in 2012 over Scarborough Shoal, a fisheries-rich feature that each side claims as its own.
"I think the Filipinos, they are very independent minded, and when something happened, the U.S. may be obligated by treaty obligation to come to their rescue," Oh said.
A miscalculation involving China and Japan would probably prompt the United States to examine "gray zone contingencies" before responding, Harold said.
Those would mean learning, for example, whether the mishap involved Chinese naval boats or fishing boats, Harold said. U.S. officials would explore further whether Japan needed U.S. help or could follow up on its own, he said.
Allies, including the United States, U.K. and Australia, are making ever clearer to China that they would "react in a contingency," Harold said.
Informal Sino-foreign channels to bury accidents
China and the United States have their own informal resolution channel for collisions and accidental misfires, lowering the risk of conflict, analysts believe.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command holds regular maritime consultations with the PLA to boost sea and air safety while reviewing any incidents, a command spokesperson said.
“U.S. Indo-Pacific Command vessels and aircraft comply with international laws and norms that guide safe and professional operations in international waters and airspace and we rely on other nations operating in the Indo-Pacific to do the same,” the spokesperson said.
Beijing hopes to avoid war but will fume and blame the United States over any accidents, they say. China did both after the deadly U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 during a war over Kosovo — Washington called the strike accidental — and after the 2001 emergency landing of a U.S. reconnaissance plane that two Chinese fighter jets had chased near China's south coast.
"The situation has become a chicken game basically, and countries are just shadowing each other," said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school. "There's no intention to harm each other probably, but accidents can and do happen."