Even a minor naval incident between the US and China in the South China Sea could have “nightmarish” outcome because of a severe trust deficit between the two countries, military observers have warned.
Analysts attending the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing also highlighted the risk that Taiwan could become another flashpoint between the two sides, with tensions affecting almost every aspect of their relationship.
“Strategically speaking, trust between China and the US has fallen. A skirmish involving military aircraft or warships in the South China Sea could easily escalate [and become a crisis],” retired PLA Major General Yao Yunzhu told the event on Tuesday.
In the last two years, the US Navy has sent warships into Chinese-controlled waters 11 times as part of what Washington described as “freedom of navigation” operations to challenge China’s “excessive claims” in the South China Sea.
In the closest encounter, two destroyers – the USS Decatur and Lanzhou – came within 41 metres (134 feet) of a collision near the Chinese-built Gaven Reef in the Spratly chain in September 2018.
Bates Gill, professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Australia’s Macquarie University, said Taiwan would become a potential flashpoint when its presidential election is held in January.
“In Taiwan, we have this steady evolution of the political atmosphere where reunification under ‘one country, two systems’, or certainly reunification under Chinese terms, is simply unacceptable,” Gill said.
“Say if [President] Tsai Ing-wen wins the election, as it appears likely now, it will simply add to that dynamic,” he said referring to the independence-leaning candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Beijing regards the island as a renegade province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.
Alexander Lukin, an East Asia specialist from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, also expressed worries over potential conflicts if cross-strait tensions increase.
Lukin said there was “fertile ground” for conflict because memories of the last major war had faded. “People forget about the war. This is most dangerous,” he said.
“We have seen very dangerous signs of it – like the collapse of the arms control treaties” – referring to the US decision to pull out of its Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia earlier this year.