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Risk of great power conflict in South China Sea is rising, experts say

The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transit the South China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cody Beam)
July 19, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The risk of the United States and China stumbling into conflict in the South China Sea is rising as their military exercises intensify and various nations adopt a more muscular presence in this key regional hotspot, experts say.

An increasingly assertive China has been sending survey ships in waters where other claimant states want to explore for oil, and has repeatedly deployed coastguard and paramilitary fishing vessels alongside them. On top of it all, in early July China held naval drills near the Paracel Islands that drew protests from Vietnam and the Philippines.

If China’s show of force was intended to test Washington’s resolve, it appears to have backfired. The U.S. and its allies are pushing back. For the first time in years, the U.S. has in the past week sent two aircraft carriers into the South China Sea on an exercise that was within sight of China’s own drill in the Paracels. Those carrier strike groups exercised with the navy of Japan, and both Japan and Australia have unveiled new defense strategies in recent weeks that highlight concerns over China.

The rival military maneuvers at sea are echoed on the diplomatic stage. This week, U.S, Japan and Australia defense officials denounced the “continued militarization of disputed features,” the “coercive use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia,” and the disruption of other countries’ right to resources. That drew a stiff response from China, which accused “non-regional countries” of threatening stability.

Notwithstanding the growing strains in the U.S.-China relationship – Hong Kong, the sanctioning of Chinese officials over atrocities in Xinjiang, or trade disputes — RAND Corporation analyst Andrew Scobell said both the U.S. and China tend to presume the risk of conflict in the South China Sea is low — and that presents a danger in itself.

“It worries me because that gives both sides a sense that they can do things without worrying about the potential for escalation,” said Scobell, who is also professor at Marine Corps University.

Olli Pekka Suorsa, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, shared concern over the growing potential for an unintended conflict breaking out.

“With both China and the United States deploying significant numbers of ships and military aircraft in close proximity with one another, the risk of collision is an ever-present danger,” Suorsa said. “And with tensions running as high as they are today, an accident or miscalculation is never far away.”

An accident is all it takes

All the experts interviewed for this article say the most likely spark for fighting in the South China Sea is an accident.

Scobell harked back to the EP-3 incident in 2001, when a U.S. intelligence-gathering plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in mid-air over the Paracels, causing the death of a Chinese pilot and forcing the U.S. plane to land at China’s Hainan province, where its crew was detained.

That incident was defused successfully, but Scobell thinks any situation now would be more volatile, and there would be more pressure on both the U.S. and China to act hastily.

As the U.S. patrols the skies and sea more frequently and China continues its paramilitary activity, the chance of ships colliding or trying to force one another to back down increases, multiple experts say. In the event of a crisis, there are ‘hotlines’ between China and the United States, but Scobell said this direct line of communication is imperfect, slow, and frequently frozen.

“What gets U.S. officials frustrated is that we have this hotline or you have someone’s phone number, you’ve exchanged business cards, you’ve built a relationship and then in a crisis the American decisionmaker picks up the phone to call his Chinese point of contact and nobody answers. That’s what often happens,” Scobell said.

The reason for this, according to him, is a difference in culture. Chinese military officials do not want to be responsible for responding to Americans during a crisis.

“From the perspective of a Chinese military commander, any initiative or modest deviation from one’s orders is not rewarded, you’re really worried about being slapped down for stepping out of line,” he said.

That has big implications for how a Chinese naval officer would respond to an accident at sea involving a U.S. vessel. Whereas the U.S. Navy has a culture where officers and captains have significant flexibility in how they execute their orders, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has far less.

“When you have rigid orders, and circumstances change, and you feel like you cannot deviate from those orders, that is where the danger is,” Scobell said.

Containing risk in Southeast Asia

The South China Sea is viewed as a hotspot for good reason. In addition to the plethora of tiny land features disputed by six governments, the waters are heavily fished and a potential source of undersea oil and gas. The region is crisscrossed by shipping routes crucial for world trade, hence the concern paid to it by outside countries.

“If allowed to proceed unchecked,” said Hunter Stires, a fellow at the U.S. Naval War College, “China’s maritime insurgency will lead to a closed, Sinocentric, and unfree sea, one where avaricious coastal states can fence off and lay claim to ocean areas nowhere near them to keep the ships and mariners of other countries out.”

The last major shooting match in the South China Sea was in 1988 when China and Vietnam clashed over Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys, which left some 64 Vietnamese dead and China in control of the feature.

But, historically, nations have managed to contain the risk of conflict. In April, a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by the Chinese coastguard. In February, China was accused of training a radar gun on a Philippine Navy vessel, which prompted Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr., to file a diplomatic protest.

Neither incident escalated, and for good reason, according to Dr. Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“It is in no one’s interests, neither China’s nor anyone in Southeast Asia, to escalate incidents into military confrontation,” she said.

But with no discernable progress in resolving the myriad territorial disputes in the South China Sea, few observers are optimistic about nations reaching a durable solution to protect against conflict.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has aspired for nearly two decades to negotiate with China a binding Code of Conduct, or CoC, that would mitigate the risk of accidents at sea. ASEAN members Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Indonesia all have claims to the South China Sea or borders that conflict with China’s claims. Late last month, the bloc reiterated their desire to complete those negotiations.

But Dr. Le Thu said that it was “wrong to hang on to the hope” that the CoC would make the South China Sea more safe.

“The same week when the Senior Ministers’ Meeting between China and ASEAN reassured about each other’s good intentions and cooperation towards the CoC, China also sent ships into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and kept harassing other Southeast Asians,” she noted.

Taking sides

Some Southeast Asian nations which lack the capacity to stand up to China believe stepping up cooperation with the United States is the best way to safeguard their interests, according to Mohamad Mizan Aslam, a geopolitical strategy expert at the Universiti Malaysia Perlis.

Scobell said one of the most remarkable regional developments this year has been the Philippines’ backtracking on plans to dial back its military ties with the U.S., its treaty ally. “Beijing was starting to believe it had lured Manila away from Washington,” he said.

Manila shelved its sudden abrogation of a visiting forces agreement with Washington on June 1, and is now taking a stronger line against China’s actions in the South China Sea.

However, ASEAN countries remain wary about too much of a U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, where there is the potential for them to be dragged into a U.S.-China conflict.

Dr. Le Thu said countries in the region “would be more comfortable with the U.S. that has a strategy and longer-term plan how to manage the tensions rather than fueling it for its own benefit.” She was alluding to the idea that the U.S. is primarily motivated by its strategic contest with China.

ASEAN nations are traditionally loathe to pick sides. Suorsa said the more the Sino-U.S rivalry intensifies, the more pressure both Washington and Beijing are likely to exert over smaller powers to choose between them.

“High-level officials’ insistence that the U.S. will not force smaller powers pick sides is also losing credibility,” Suorsa warned.

The perception that the South China Sea has become a venue for that great power rivalry was echoed by a retired Vietnamese general this week. Senior Lt. Gen. Vo Tien Trung, a former member of the Communist Party Central Committee, warned that the recent military drills by China and the U.S. have “created instability and a tense situation.”

“Such actions of the two countries’ militaries create the risk of a military clash leading to instability in the South China Sea region,” he told state-run Dan Viet newspaper. “So we ask both sides to exercise utmost restraint.”