South China Sea is a flashpoint in military buildup as China asserts control.
This story is part of an ongoing series on U.S.-China relations, jointly produced by the South China Morning Post and POLITICO, with reporting from Asia and the United States.
Rising tensions over Beijing’s accelerating military buildup in the South China Sea are stoking fears of a major-power clash between China and the United States — fueling urgent calls for new security talks before the two nations stumble into a shooting war.
But the worries come amid a dearth of official dialogue between two of the world’s largest militaries, and as U.S. leaders espouse an increasingly harder line against China’s actions. The U.S. and its allies have stepped up naval and air patrols over the sea and canceled joint exercises with Beijing, while China is considering requiring all aircraft flying over the area to first identify themselves — a step that many nations would consider threatening.
Military experts say the showdown could easily spin out of control.
“Chinese colleagues have said to me explicitly that if the U.S. continues to sail through and over-fly what they see as their waters, China will eventually shoot down the offending aircraft,” said Matthew Kroenig, a former CIA analyst and Pentagon strategist. “Maybe that’s just a bluff, but if China shot down a U.S. plane, that would be a scenario ripe for escalation. It’s hard to see President [Donald] Trump or any other U.S. leader backing down from that.”
U.S. military leaders insist they’re determined to avoid that. Navy Adm. Phil Davidson, the U.S. commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, told POLITICO he’s eager to open a new dialogue with his Chinese counterparts, contending that “a military-to-military relationship is quite important.”
“I have yet to meet the [chief of defense] or the minister of defense in China,” he said. “I hope to visit early next year.”
Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says establishing more channels for the militaries to avoid conflict is one his top priorities as Washington and Beijing also tussle over issues such as trade and North Korea’s nuclear program. “Competition does not necessarily lead to conflict,” he said at a recent security forum in Canada.
On the other hand, the U.S. is trying to send Chinese leaders a pointed message by sending an increased number of military patrols through the disputed waters, Dunford said in an interview with POLITICO.
“What we are doing is preserving the principle of open access to the global commons,” Dunford said. And he said nations “violating international norms, standards and the law” should know they are “going to pay a cost that is higher than whatever they hope to gain.”
Similarly, Beijing’s leaders are not backing down from their military expansion in the vast South China Sea, which stretches more than 1.3 million square miles with trillions of dollars worth of trade transiting annually. Those waters include the Spratly Islands chain where China seized reefs and began building artificial islands during the second term of the Obama administration.
Despite public assurances from President Xi Jinping that the features would not be militarized, China recently deployed surface-to-air missiles and other weapons and equipment. Earlier this year, satellite images showed that Beijing has built at least four airstrips suitable for military aircraft on Woody Island, as well as the reefs in the archipelago known as Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi.