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Will South China Sea Dispute Lead to World War?

This photo taken through a window of a military plane shows China's apparent reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 11, 2015.

Will South China Sea issues trigger a third world war? While American scholars and New York investors are paying close attention to the political, military and economic aspects of the South China Sea conflict, others find the speculation unconvincing.

The U.S. and China have increasingly argued in recent days over Beijing's artificial island building, turning underwater land into airfields, in the South China Sea. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Saturday that the U.S. opposes “any further militarization” of the disputed lands, while one of China’s top ranking military officials has defended building artificial islands in contested waters, saying the land reclamation is “justified, legitimate and reasonable.”

Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, recently claimed that the South China Sea could become the next “Great War Zone.”

Chang said last week at a panel discussion held by the U.S. Air Force Association that it will not be long before the U.S. takes initiatives to respond to China’s unyielding attitude and behavior in the South China Sea. He said the time frame is now.

“The U.S. Navy is clearly going to test China’s claims of exclusion of the South China Sea,” Chang said. “We have to do that, because if there has been any consistent American foreign policy over the course of two centuries, it has been the defense of freedom of navigation.”

“Now China is infringing on that notion at this time,” Chang added. “I think we probably will act in a very short time frame.”

Chang called it “a classic zero-sum game” for China to challenge the U.S. in the South China Sea. He said China sees the South China Sea as one of its core interests with no room for negotiation, while the U.S. has been the influential maritime power for the past two centuries. Both could concede on the South China Sea issues, Chang said, but they will not abandon their long-held positions.

Rick Fisher, senior research fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told VOA that attention should also be paid to the development of nuclear weapons in China and North Korea. He said that although North Korea stays quiet for now, it is likely to take advantage of the South China Sea disputes in the foreseeable future.

“As soon as North Korea can demonstrate that it can fire a nuclear missile, then North Korea becomes a factor because North Korea itself can decide to take a period of high confrontation in the South China Sea and put greater pressure on the United States in order to obtain concessions from South Korea or the U.S. itself.” So, Fisher said, “as soon as there is a crisis, North Korea could become a very dangerous element.”

Fisher said although Kim Jong Un has rifts with the Chinese government, both share and act by the same communist ideology.

Well-known American investor George Soros also expressed concerns about the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea in recent months. He said at a recent World Bank forum that if China suffers economically, it is likely to initiate a third world war in order to achieve national solidarity and to get itself out of the economic difficulties. Even if China and the U.S. do not engage in a war directly, Soros said, there is a high possibility of military conflicts between China and one of the U.S. security partners, Japan. World War III could follow as a result, Soros said.

Tad Daley, director of the project on abolishing war at the Center for War/Peace Studies, disagrees with the notion that the South China Sea issues are having a strong impact on Chinese nuclear weapon strategies. He said China seems to only want to maintain nuclear deterrence, keeping its second-strike capability without taking the pre-emptive strike, or the first strike.

Daley said China achieved its second-strike capability many decades ago.

“Maybe in 1975, when China said you’d better not launch nuclear strikes on us, because probably a few nuclear warheads would remain, and we could take out Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Daley said. “That situation existed for many decades.”

All these Chinese nuclear developments, he said, have not changed that “in any kind of meaningful way.”

President Barack Obama on Monday also sternly warned China that its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea are counterproductive and a threat to Southeast Asian prosperity.