As China and the US exchange barbs over everything from trade to COVID-19 to Hong Kong, the two powers are at greater risk of careering into a physical confrontation. Nowhere are their warships and fighter jets coming as close to each other, with as much frequency, as the South China Sea.
A military conflict would probably be devastating for both. There are no signs that either side actually wants one. Still, in times of high tension, miscalculations can have unintended consequences.
In the first four months of this year, the US Navy conducted four freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, all or parts of which are claimed by Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. That puts it on track to surpass last year’s total of eight.
Illustration: Constance Chou
At the same time, as China emerged from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) steamed out of port in Hainan and resumed drills in the area.
It is a high-stakes game of cat and mouse between the militaries of two countries with a history of near-misses.
With US President Donald Trump months from an election and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rattling nationalistic cages at home to distract from a wounded economy, the mood is less conducive to the careful diplomacy needed to defuse a standoff at sea. Xi on Tuesday used an address to delegates at the Chinese National People’s Congress in Beijing to again warn the military to strengthen war preparations.
“While a premeditated armed conflict between China and the US is a remote possibility, we see their military assets operating in greater regularity and at higher intensity in the same maritime domain,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean (許瑞麟), a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“The interactions of these rival assets in the area would create chances of miscalculation and misjudgment leading to inadvertent or accidental use of force, which is thus potentially incendiary and could result in escalation. This is a risk we can’t discount,” Koh said.
The US and China have been dancing around each other in the South China Sea for years. While the US is not a territorial claimant, the waters are a key thoroughfare for global shipping and trade, rich in fish and with large, but mostly unproven energy deposits.
The US has supported some smaller states against China’s increased military presence in the area, including Beijing’s move to build airstrips and land strategic hardware on rocky outcrops and low-lying reefs. Beijing has also deployed China Coast Guard vessels decked out with the same level of armory as a standard navy ship to escort its fishing fleets.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in December last year spoke of his intention to prioritize the deployment of US forces to the Asia-Pacific region from other areas in the face of growing competition with China.
The pandemic resulted in exercises being scaled down or canceled and the sidelining of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam after hundreds of crew members tested positive for the disease (it has now returned to sea).
Still, there remain flash points.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Reed Werner last week in an interview with Fox News warned of a “very worrisome” trend, accusing China of the “harassment” of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mustin while it patrolled the South China Sea. He also cited at least nine instances of Chinese fighter jets doing the same to US reconnaissance aircraft.
In an effort to bolster its defense capacity in airspace over the disputed waters, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense has said that it would formally declare an air defense identification zone after years of attempting — mostly unsuccessfully — to force airplanes from other nations flying in the area to change their course.
However, it is unclear when this might actually happen.
The US Navy has also engaged in a standoff with Chinese vessels after twice sending warships on presence operations off the coast of Malaysia, where Chinese ships were shadowing a Malaysian state-contracted drilling ship exploring two potentially lucrative energy blocks claimed by both countries.
In the middle of this month, US Seventh Fleet commander Vice Admiral Bill Merz said in a statement that the US had done so in support of “allies and partners in the lawful pursuit of their economic interests.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at the time that its survey ship was “conducting normal activities in waters under Chinese jurisdiction” and called the situation “basically stable.”
On Sunday last week, Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi (王毅) accused “non-regional countries” of “flexing their muscles” in an effort to sow discord between China and Southeast Asian nations.
Security experts familiar with the Malaysian government’s thinking said that officials in Kuala Lumpur expressed concern to the US that its presence would only serve to escalate the matter.
A spokeswoman for the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment.
The US was “clearly sending a signal,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
The US Air Force on April 29 sent two B-1B Lancers on a more than 30-hour round-trip sortie from South Dakota to conduct operations over the South China Sea, even as it reportedly ended its long-time practice of maintaining a continuous bomber presence in Guam.
In an e-mailed statement, the air force said that it had “transitioned” to an approach that lets bombers take off from a broader array of overseas locations, making them “operationally unpredictable.”
“I think part of the uptick in US military operations is to make sure that the Chinese don’t miscalculate and think that the United States is unprepared because of the fact that the Theodore Roosevelt has been out of commission sitting in Guam,” Glaser said. “But I also think that it is in response to the increased op-temp [operational tempo] by the Chinese.”
There are mechanisms in place to avoid a mishap between the two nation’s navies. China, the US and 19 other countries have joined a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea with a standardized protocol of safety procedures.
US Navy officials have said that they have been communicating more closely with the PLAN, and that CUES is working.
Still, it does not cover the coast guard or fishing militias, which are increasingly used by China to assert its claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea.
The “problem is that the incidents we observe in the region aren’t ‘unplanned’ — in the lead-up to these close encounters, the rival naval forces at sea already knew each other to be present and they shadow and monitor each other under way, at visual range,” Koh said.
There have been tense moments before.
In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US surveillance plane in international airspace, forcing the US aircraft to make an emergency landing in China and the Chinese jet to crash.
In 2016, a PLAN ship seized a US Navy underwater research drone in international waters, prompting Trump to accuse China of theft. It was later returned.
Most recently, the defense ministry said that the PLAN followed and expelled a US guided missile destroyer on April 28, claiming that it had trespassed in Chinese territory.
Under Xi’s watch, China has refocused its military from land-based troops to air and sea capability. It commissioned more than two dozen new ships in 2016 and 2017, and in October last year said that the development of a second homemade aircraft carrier was making “steady progress” after floating its first in 2017.
In just 15 years, China has doubled its supply of launchers and built weapons that have extended the reach of its conventional warheads to cover most of the US’ Western Pacific bases.
“I do worry about this situation,” National University of Singapore East Asian Institute director Zheng Yongnian (鄭永年) said. “The US-China relationship is in free fall now, pushed by the hardliners from both sides. No doubt, the new Cold War between the two is escalating, and now people begin to worry about the possibility of a hot war, a regional one.”
“Even worse, there is no force to cool them down,” he said. “Nations in Southeast Asia are too small compared to the two great powers.”
The renewed tensions has put those smaller Southeast Asian states in a tight spot. Singapore, while not a South China Sea claimant, has long warned against forcing countries to choose a side.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on May 20 told the Vietnamese National Assembly that the situation in the South China Sea was becoming “more complicated.”
Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency this month reported that Beijing would “strictly enforce” an annual fishing ban that started on May 1, prompting Vietnam to reject what it called a “unilateral decision.”
Meanwhile, the Philippines has filed diplomatic protests against China’s creation of two new districts in an attempt to administer islands in the waters, its top envoy said.
“Southeast Asia finds itself increasingly in a hardened new Cold War,” said Paul Chambers, special adviser on international affairs at Naresuan University’s Center of ASEAN Community Studies in Thailand. “The tip of that iceberg is the South China Sea.”
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