Could Tensions in the South China Sea Spark a War?

And by the way...Washington could get dragged in. 

In the South China Sea, where China’s ambitious “nine-dash line” claim of sovereignty has been disputed by several other claimants, relations have in recent weeks turned remarkably chillier. Vietnam and the Philippines are facing the brunt of Beijing’s ire, and the potential for crisis and conflict is significant. Positions are hardening, willingness to compromise is low, and the fact that the Philippines is an ally of the United States raises the potential for a disastrous crisis and potential conflict between the U.S. and China.

The clash between China and Vietnam has attracted more attention in recent days. Just a few days after President Obama’s visit to the region, a Chinese mobile oil rig took position in a carefully selected site that, while closer to the Vietnam mainland than China’s Hainan Island, is just fourteen nautical miles from Chinese-occupied island, a part of the Paracel Island group that is claimed by both China and Vietnam. China sent a large flotilla of ships to escort the derrick; a group that included several armed Naval vessels. After Hanoi expressed outrage at this action and violence against Chinese nationals across Vietnam, Beijing expanded the escort flotilla to over 100 ships. Most recently, Chinese ships interdicted, rammed, and sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel that was challenging the derrick. Vietnam claims that four ships were attacked in all, and now there are reportedly 113 ships standing off against sixty Vietnamese vessels.

Similar incidents have played out in recent months between China and the Philippines. After China took effective control over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, Beijing seemed to set its sights on the Second Thomas Shoal—a small land formation about 105 nautical miles from the Philippines but is claimed by both countries. To buttress its claim, the Philippines in 1999 intentionally beached the hospital ship Sierra Madre on the reef and has maintained a small crew on the beached craft ever since (see an exceptional piece about the sailors on the ship and the broader dispute by the New York Times here). Most recently, the Philippines arrested a group of Chinese fishermen found 70 miles from the Philippines near Half Moon Shoal with a ship filled with endangered (and valuable) turtles.

To an outsider, all this hyperbole and saber rattling about small rocks, oil derricks, fishermen, and turtles must seem like much ado about nothing. Yet it is deadly serious—these seemingly trivial issues are used as avatars for deadly serious questions about history, power, ambition, and national sovereignty. An examination of how countries see these issues and how they have behaved in the past provides a window for how they are likely to act in the future. It’s not a comforting thought.

Chinese Ambition and Reactive Assertiveness

The common denominator in all of the South China Sea’s existing disputes is China. Beijing serves as the primary catalyst for tension and crisis in these disputes. Its declaration of a nine-dash line claim of sovereignty that covers almost the entire Sea is stunning in its ambition and audaciousness: in April, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel described the claim as lacking any “apparent basis under international law regarding the scope of the claim itself.” That’s because China has justified its claim by asserting its historical control over those waters, yet the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—which sets standards for defining territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, and the land features that generate them—does not allow for claims based on history. Moreover, while various Chinese dynasties have at various times controlled various islands within the South China Sea, China has never controlled all of them at the same time.

China’s behavior in the South China Sea has changed significantly in recent years. The South China Sea was not a major issue for Beijing for the first few decades after Chairman Mao established the People’s Republic in 1949. It wasn’t until Deng Xiaoping took the reins of power in the 1970s that it became a significant issue in China’s foreign affairs, and Deng set a path for restraint and nonconfrontation. Seeing China as relatively weak and in need of a peaceful external environment to allow China’s economy to develop, Deng pursued a policy to shelve disputes in order to pursue joint development of resources.

As China’s economy has grown more prosperous and powerful, its calculations have changed. The growth of its economy has far outpaced indigenous development of natural resources, and China’s economy has grown ever more hungry for new sources of food and energy—a hunger that the South China Sea can potentially help to address. At the same time, China’s economic, political, and military power has grown exponentially and now towers above the other claimants. Their economies are fundamentally tied to China, which leaves them vulnerable to economic coercion from Beijing, while their political influence and military power now pale in comparison to China’s.

Many of China’s elites have recognized this change in the distribution of power and believe China should act more assertively in the pursuit of its interests in the South China Sea. Led by large state-owned corporate interests such as CNOOC and SINOPEC and abetted by hawks in the PLA, China’s leaders have apparently been convinced that Beijing should abandon Deng’s precedent of restraint and conciliation and instead seek to change the status quo in China’s favor.

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