As Washington and Beijing continue to spar over the latter’s assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea, the war of words has the two nations lurching ever closer to an actual shooting war, with all that will entail.
The dispute has escalated in the past days and weeks, with the US slapping sanctions on Chinese officials and companies involved in the construction of several man-made islands in the region, and the US and Chinese militaries facing off in increasingly provocative and confrontational encounters.
The announcement by the US Commerce Department that it was adding an unspecified number of Chinese officials, along with 24 named companies, to an existing “entity list” limiting their access to American exports without US government permission, comes on the heels of the US conducting intrusive aerial reconnaissance of Chinese military drills. Meanwhile, the Chinese are conducting naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea using weapons designed to sink US aircraft carriers.
Both nations have condemned the actions of the other, while vowing not to yield to any pressure. This mutual inflexibility, combined with the increased militarization of the dispute, has created a powder keg of tension where the slightest miscalculation by either side could produce a spark that triggers a regional conflagration.
China is in the midst of several military live-fire exercises, some of which are clearly designed as a response to recent military drills by the US, including one involving two American aircraft carriers operating in the South China Sea. The US military is closely monitoring these drills, and, on at least two occasions, deployed aerial reconnaissance assets in a manner deemed dangerous by the Chinese.
One drill, involving a naval exercise in the Bohai Sea west of the Korean peninsula, was overflown by a U-2 high altitude spy plane, despite the fact China had declared a no-fly zone over the area. China condemned the US action, noting it had every right to shoot down the aircraft, and would take appropriate measures in the future to protect its security.
China has a history of responding aggressively to US reconnaissance flights along its border, with numerous instances of its aircraft “buzzing” US planes to drive them off course. One such incident, in 2001, resulted in a collision that killed a Chinese pilot and forced a US aircraft to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory, where the US plane and crew were temporarily detained.
In a separate incident, on August 26, China launched up to four ballistic missiles – believed to be DF-21D and DF-26B – into the waters of the South China Sea. These missiles are nicknamed ‘aircraft carrier killers’, and were specifically designed to destroy enemy ships underway at sea, having been from mobile launchers located hundreds of miles inland, making them virtually immune from interdiction. The US deployed an RC-135 Cobra Ball spy plane specially configured to monitor ballistic missile tests by tracking and photographing warheads during their re-entry phase. The intelligence collected from this effort would have utility in improving US anti-missile defenses.
The Chinese military exercises are part of what US Secretary of Defense Mike Esper calls“an aggressive modernization plan” on the part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army designed to “achieve a world-class military” by 2050. As China’s military capabilities improve, Esper warned, the Chinese government will be emboldened to commit even more “provocative behavior in the South and East China Seas, and anywhere else the Chinese government has deemed critical to its interests.”
Esper described the Indo-Pacific region as being at the center of a “great power competition with China”, declaring that the US was “not going to cede this region, an inch of ground if you will, to another country, any other country that thinks their form of government, their views on human rights, their views on sovereignty, their views on freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, all those things, that somehow that’s better than what many of us share.”
A Chinese military spokesperson, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, responded to Esper’s statements by condemning “certain US politicians” who were using a worsening of Sino-US relations for their own political gain in the leadup to the US elections in November, even to the point of provoking a military clash. “This kind of behavior puts the lives of frontline officers and soldiers on both sides at risk,” Wu Qian said, adding “China will not dance to the US’ tune, nor will we acquiesce to its reckless behavior.” The colonel stated that China would take “forceful measures” to protect its national security interests.
With both the US and China seemingly willing to bolster their respective hardline positions with increasingly provocative military actions, it is only a matter of time before the world is speculating about the potential for a force-on-force military clash to occur, and the reality of one having transpired.
While neither China nor the US appears to desire such an outcome, they are engaged in a dangerous game of ‘chicken’, pushing the other to the edge of the abyss of war in an effort to see who will blink first. If there is a diplomatic solution to be had to the US-China dispute over the South China Sea, the current methodologies employed by both sides appear to hinder more than help, propelling the two nations down a path where the only outcome will be a military collision that neither side can afford to lose, and as such will do whatever it takes to win. This is a recipe for disaster, the kind of mindless escalation that produces war at the expense of peace and prosperity.
By Scott Ritter