Is the South China Sea the Stage for the Next World War?

The guided-missile destroyer USS Mason fires its 5-inch light weight gun during a U.S.-China counter piracy exercise. Flickr/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet

It's not just about the rocks.

Recent skirmishes in the South China Sea between the Indonesian navy and China’s coast guard have reinvigorated public interest towards the region. Some applauded Indonesia’s resolve in defending her rightful maritime territory. However, some are still left wondering over China’s motives in provoking such regional conflict—including with Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. How can one explain why China risks a major war that could potentially drag the United States in for a bunch of uninhabited rocks?

Some say they are fighting for control over major oil and gas reserves in those seas. But this seems not to be the case. After all, great powers have rarely fought one another in a major war over economic resources in modern history, if at all. Or is it because of China’s nine-dash line? For sure, one needs to differentiate the means, ways and ends of phenomena. The nine-dash line is a means that China uses to justify its policy ends. But it does not explain the endgame it wants to achieve—therefore, it cannot be used to explain its motives in the South China Sea.

Let’s take a look back at the twentieth century. World War I started when Austria-Hungary declared war on and attacked Serbia. So, does it mean that World War I was caused by Austria-Hungary’s invasion? No. Austria-Hungary did start the war, but it was certainly not caused by it. The cause of the war was the great powers’ concern about the prevalent regional order in Europe—and their wish to alter it.

The Germans (together with Austria-Hungary) looked uncomfortably at the shifting balance of power towards the Franco-Russian (and possibly British) alliance. They saw the erosion of Germany’s dominance over the European order while looking for a way to reverse the trend. The French and the Russians, boosted by newly gained power, had been humiliated during the German-led political order before and were also looking for a way to punish Germany along with her allies.

Similar to World War I, World War II started with an invasion, when Hitler invaded Poland. However, Poland was not the cause of the Anglo-French and German rivalry escalating to a war in 1939. Instead, the Anglo-French were concerned over the shifting balance of power towards Germany’s favor and sought to prevent it from going further in that direction. That determination finally led to war over Poland’s survival.

Put simply, what Serbia and Poland have in common with the South and East China Seas is that they served as a venue of great-power rivalry. But they are definitely not the cause of that rivalry.

To understand the cause of the current U.S.-China rivalry, one needs to see the history and strategic picture of the Asian region. Put simply, one needs to see beyond the South China Sea. Following the defeat of Imperial Japan in World War II, the United States has been the sole great power that can project its power throughout the region. Since that day, the region has come under American-led regional order. Having only a fraction of the United States’ power, other states in the region accepted American primacy.

What is happening today is that China has gathered enough power and is becoming powerful enough to match (or even surpass) America’s ability to project power throughout much of Asia. Power means leadership throughout history and with its newly gained power, China wants a bigger role in regional leadership. For sure, though it seems weird for most people, anyone who carefully study history will concede that this is a normal—though arguably regrettable—state behavior.

One might point a finger towards Japan and Germany as comparisons—both of whose rise of power in recent times does not correspond with a regional crisis that risks regional war—and, therefore, accuse China’s behavior as not normal. However, history once again shows that both states are the anomaly—not China.

As Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew once remarked, “Unlike other emergent countries, China wants to be China and accepted as such, not as an honorary member of the West.” It is clear from his observation that China has set its sights on displacing the United States as the dominant power that will dictate the regional order in the Asia region. This is not to say that we must agree with or accept all China wants to do. We may dislike how our rival thinks and behaves, but we have to understand them. Without understanding how China thinks, a plausible solution to the current conflict will be hard to devise.

China’s aspiration for greater regional leadership is unfortunately met with fierce challenges from the United States as well as other regional great powers such as Japan and India. Following the rise of China’s assertiveness, the United States introduced the term “pivot” (later rebranded as “rebalancing”) while her ally, Japan, has reinterpreted her constitution, allowing Tokyo to be more active both politically and militarily abroad. India, for her part, introduced an eastward-facing policy while trying to strengthen her maritime power to prevent Chinese incursion into the Indian Ocean.

Facing the prospect of containment (instead of accommodation), the question of paramount importance for China’s leaders is: how can China displace the United States (and, therefore, U.S.-led regional order) from Asia?

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