China often leaked reports that Xi Jinping had ordered the PLA to be able to take Taiwan by force by the year 2020. As January 1, 2020 dawned, Xi also had his eyes on the SCS as an achievable objective that year. The two objectives were inextricably linked. The SCS would be taken first.
On January 21, 2020, Xi ordered five large island-building dredges to deploy from Hainan Island, along with auxiliary vessels and equipment associated with the initial SCS artificial island construction. Their destination: Scarborough Shoal, 124 miles off Luzon, claimed by the Philippines but effectively owned by China since it illegally took control of it in 2012. American and other countries’ intelligence organizations quickly detected the movements.
An artificial island at Scarborough Shoal would provide the PRC an air and naval base that would block American military entry into the SCS via the Bashi Channel. It would also provide a southern avenue of attack for a Taiwan invasion.
In response, the U.S. and the Philippines agreed to increase military presence around Scarborough Shoal. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command directed preparatory actions, to include ordering the U.S. Seventh Fleet forces to “take station” twelve nautical miles off the shoal no later than January 24.
Meanwhile, China “swarmed” hundreds of fishing boats, Coast Guard vessels, and maritime militia ships across the SCS, similar to its swarming operation to stymie Philippine construction in the Spratlys in late 2018. China hoped to intimidate and deceive U.S.-led coalition forces in the SCS, and to draw them from the shoal. In a military confrontation, the intermingled “non-combatant” vessels would distract and confuse coalition commanders, and provide the PLA continuous intelligence and fire direction support.
On January 26, the PRC declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over SCS, and a task force including its one aircraft carrier, fifteen surface combatants, and ten attack submarines set sail south from Hainan Island. Simultaneously, PLA Air Force deployed fighter/attack aircraft to Hainan and bases along China’s southeast coastline, to include squadrons of Su-27 Flankers and FB-7 Flounders capable of maritime strike operations. PLA Rocket Forces opposite Taiwan in southeast China were placed on highest alert, armed with multiple regiments of short-and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Russian naval and air forces in Far East Military District were placed at a heightened state of alert, at Beijing’s request. Beijing and the Russian Federation conducted increasingly sophisticated military exercises together for nearly a decade. China hoped Russia’s perceived possible military engagement would help dissuade the U.S. from fighting for the SCS. Although Russia sent backchannel messages to Washington it would not engage in a fight for the SCS, the United States and Japan began contingency planning.
Globally, Beijing orchestrated mass demonstrations and “peace protests” by its United Front organizations in major cities. Simultaneously, it accelerated cyber attacks and began sabotage operations in “enemy” countries to disrupt military operations and national-level decision-making processes.
But Beijing’s coercive deterrence and political warfare campaigns had already failed. Washington, having thrown off a nearly four-decade policy of appeasement towards China, prepared for military confrontation.
With Japanese air and naval forces, U.S. forces assigned to Japan were ordered to heightened alert status. Additional combat aircraft were deployed to the region, and naval surface combatants were deployed to the southern Ryukyu Islands. Additional Japanese ground forces deployed to the Nansei Shoto area, equipped with anti-ship missiles.
Well aware that hostilities in the SCS could fatally threaten Taiwan, Taipei placed its armed forces on highest alert as well, and began civil defense preparations.
The U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, sailed east of Okinawa with a battle group, and a second carrier battle group set sail from San Diego. Two additional squadrons of F-22 stealth fighters were deployed to the Pacific, one squadron to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and the other to Guam. Meanwhile, B-2 stealth bombers deployed to Guam.
U.S. Marines quickly established a series of small island outposts and embarked on small amphibious platforms spread across the region. Armed with anti-aircraft and long-range anti-ship missiles, the Marines would contribute significantly to the coalition’s SCS “anti-access/area denial” strategy. Army forces with similar capabilities began deploying from U.S. bases to Japan.
On January 28, Beijing declared all of its coastal Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) to be “foreign military-free zones” and defined all sea space inside China’s declared “9-Dashed Line Map” to comprise China’s “Blue Sovereign Soil.” Beijing insisted “no exceptions will be allowed” to this unilateral maritime sovereignty designation.
On January 29, the PRC initiated a virtual repeat of its September 30, 2018 Lanzhou-USS Decatur incident. There were no illusions in Beijing about the consequences: there would be shooting, and casualties.
But Xi and his inner circle were confident the U.S. would back down as it had so often done in the past. If not, they were confident their forces would defeat the U.S.-led coalition forces if a battle ensued.
No one in the Politburo seemed haunted by the ghosts of The Great War’s nearly twenty-two million dead, or by visions of the shattered and forgotten Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German, and Ottoman empires.
Like the assassination that sparked World War I, the incident that started the SCS war was simple, but violent.
A PRC-flagged fishing ship, with a Chinese Coast Guard cutter escort, made a “beeline” track directly towards the USS Chancellorsville, a U.S. Seventh Fleet guided missile cruiser. Despite the Chancellorsville’s radio warnings to the Chinese ships that they were on a collision course, the two Chinese ships continued directly towards the U.S. ship.
After attempting to evade the oncoming ships and exhausting all other peaceful options, the Chancellorsville fired four warning shots fired from its forward 5-inch gun.
Within minutes, the PLA Navy guided missile destroyer Lanzhou (DDG-170), operating over the horizon some 100nm away, fired a salvo of four YJ-62 long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.
Thus, China began its war for the South China Sea.
NATO immediately invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and implemented Military Response Options, to include immediate force deployments to the South and East China Seas in support of NATO’s long-standing democratic partners there. The EU rapidly engaged as well, initiating consultations to invoke the Treaty on European Union, ostensibly for defense against Chinese aggression impacting France’s Asia-Pacific territories.
Globally, countries that hoped that they would never have to choose sides in a war between the U.S. and China found it was finally time to choose sides.
China had, in effect, begun World War III.
Professor Kerry K. Gershaneck is a Visiting Scholar at the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan. A former U.S. Marine Corps officer, he was previously the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Thailand, as well as a Senior Research Associate with CPG at Thammasat University (Bangkok) and a Senior Associate with Pacific Forum CSIS.
Captain James E. Fanell, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is currently a Government Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Switzerland. He served as a career naval intelligence officer whose positions included the Chief of Intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the U.S. 7th Fleet, as the senior intelligence officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence.