The US-China South China Sea Showdown


The United States and China are hurtling toward a showdown over Freedom of Navigation in the the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy is poised to sail near seven artificial islands China constructed in the Spratly archipelago over the past two years as a means to challenge any excessive or illegitimate Chinese sovereignty claims there. In Beijing, meanwhile, opposition to U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) around the artificial islands is hardening, as evidenced by the threat China’s state-run Xinhua news agency issued last week:

[America’s] provocative attempts to infringe on China’s South China Sea sovereignty are sabotaging regional peace and stability and militarizing the waters…China will never tolerate any military provocation or infringement on sovereignty from the United States or any other country, just as the United States refused to 53 years ago [during the Cuban Missile Crisis].

The commentary is troubling for several reasons. First, it continues a trend of increasingly confrontational and escalatory language. In May, Beijing was describing U.S. FONOPS around the artificial islands as “dangerous and irresponsible”; now they are an intolerable provocation and infringement on sovereignty. Second, as it was written in a state-owned Party mouthpiece, the article carries greater weight than the occasional caustic threat from a retired PLA general. Third, the language serves to further box China’s leaders into more hardline positions, restricting their options for de-escalation and compromise. Finally, it represents how close the U.S. and China are to a crisis that could have and should have been avoided.

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