Such plans are considered aggressive, dangerous and extremely provocative by the Chinese. A recent Global Times editorial read, “China mustn’t tolerate rampant US violations of China’s adjacent waters and the skies over these expanding islands. The Chinese military should be ready to launch countermeasures according to Washington’s level of provocation.” The article further stated, “If the US encroaches on China’s core interests, the Chinese military will stand up and use force to stop it.” The article stated plainly, “If the US adopts an aggressive approach, it will breach China’s bottom line, and China will not sit idly by.” Other reports from this newspaper, a state-sponsored Chinese media outlet, have made it clear that if the bottom line for the United States is that China must end all of its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, then war is inevitable, which suggests that this issue may be the tipping point for the Sino-American relationship. How the United States and China choose to move forward on this issue will permanently redefine the relationship between these two great powers.
Granted, this may just be saber rattling, but even if that is the case, this issue is still decidedly zero-sum—which increases the likelihood of conflict. For China, political preservation and a potential Chinese sphere of influence are on the line, and for the United States, the liberal world order and American hegemony are at stake. Sooner or later, this trying issue will need to be resolved, and regardless of whether it is resolved through diplomacy or military force, it will take a toll on the geopolitical influence of either one or both countries. Were the international institutions for collective security strong enough to handle situations like this when they arise—and if China and the United States were willing to establish a new relationship model which addresses each country’s respective security concerns and encourages effective collaboration—it might actually be possible to resolve this issue peacefully. But given current circumstances, this is little more than idealism and wishful thinking. As there is currently no clear solution to this problem that would allow both countries to walk out of this situation with their heads held high, these two states are pondering the unthinkable. Depending on each country’s level of commitment and resolve, this situation may have already passed the tipping point. The outcome of the geopolitical power struggle between China and the United States will almost certainly be decided in the South China Sea. Some have suggested that the South China Sea issue is not a Sino-American issue. On the contrary, it is the most pressing Sino-American issue. One side will either choose to back down or be forced to back down. No matter how everything plays out in the South China Sea, geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region will never be the same again.
Ryan Pickrell is an American student with a master’s degree in International Relations who is currently pursuing a PhD in International Relations and Diplomacy at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei, China. He is in the third year of his degree program, and his research is primarily focused on Sino-American relations, specifically the respective grand strategies of China and the United States and the impact of these strategies on the Asia-Pacific region and the Sino-American relationship.
Image: U.S. Navy