The Buzz

All of the Terrifying Ways America and China Could Go To War in the South China Sea

Many analysts are arguing that the PLAN needs to push its submarines past the first island chain in order to seriously threaten U.S. access to China’s littoral.  Preparing for this would require increasing the tempo of the PLAN’s submarine operations, which would more often put China’s boats in proximity with Japanese and American subs.  To be sure, Chinese submarines are loud enough that U.S. boats should have plenty of time to get out of their way, but the same could be said of Soviet boats for much of the Cold War.

If a major submarine incident happened between the United States and China, the nature of the medium might offer some hope for de-escalation (we often don’t hear about these accidents until much later). But such an incident would also put more lives and property at stake than a fighter collision.

Concluding Thoughts

Accidental war is rare, but not impossible. Common to all of these scenarios is the potential that Chinese (or less likely, American) public opinion might become so inflamed as to box in policymakers. If Xi Jinping, who has made assertive foreign policy a cornerstone of his administration, feels that he cannot back down and survive politically, then things could get unpredictable very quickly.

As Denny Roy has argued, China is playing offense in the South China Sea. By establishing facts on the ground (indeed, establishing “ground”), it is creating a situation in which normal U.S. behavior looks like destabilizing intervention. What’s less than clear is that Beijing fully understands the risks of this strategy, or the dangers of pushing the United States Navy on freedom of navigation, one of the long-term core interests of the United States. And given that governments sometimes don’t even understand that they’re playing a dangerous game until they find themselves in the middle of it, a great deal of caution is warranted.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and MoneyInformation Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls.