Thanks To Coronavirus, Tensions Are Rising In The South China Sea

June 1, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: ChinaEast China SeaU.S. NavyA2/adTaiwan

Thanks To Coronavirus, Tensions Are Rising In The South China Sea

Japan and Taiwan could be at risk.


If Tokyo hasn’t yet discovered whether the Chinese fishing craft was part of the maritime militia, it should make every effort to do so. If it was, China may have divulged some inkling of its intentions in the East China Sea. If it wasn’t, the point stands. Beijing crowds the China seas with shipping for strategic purposes. Some of those vessels will come in close contact with Japanese vessels—creating opportunities for mischief. Japan must be on guard, now more than ever. CCP leaders may sense that now is their time, with a significant part of the U.S. Navy—including both carriers now in the Western Pacific—more or less idled because of the pandemic, and with top U.S. Navy leadership in disarray.

Isolating your opponent is a necessary precursor to waging limited war. It simplifies matters before a one-on-one fight, skews the balance of forces in your favor, and thus lifts your chances of a quick, clean triumph. The U.S.-Japan alliance has not fractured diplomatically, but Beijing might conclude that it has fractured militarily—albeit temporarily—as Japan’s ally battles the coronavirus and takes ships and aircraft offline. If so, Beijing may see a window of opportunity cracking open that might never crack open again. It will be tempted to act before that window slams shut. Whether it will yield to temptation remains to be seen.


On second thought, maybe we should make an exception to Heinlein’s razor for the CCP: Never attribute to human failings Chinese Communist deeds that are adequately explained by villainy—but don’t rule out human failings, either. Judging from Beijing’s misdeeds of recent years, the odds side with you if you shift the burden of proof to Xi Jinping & Co. This heuristic is safer, too. It keeps you alert.

Heads up, Japan.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. The views voiced here are his alone. This article first appeared in April and is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.