The perfect storm. China and the United States are pulling military forces into the South China Sea. How will the battle for regional dominance end?

Monitoring Desk

The growing geopolitical and economic confrontation between China and the United States is turning into a military rivalry in Southeast Asia. Initially starting as a dispute between Asian countries over tiny islands, the crisis in the South China Sea has become one of the main hotbeds of tension in the world. The United States is increasingly sending its warships into contested waters and conducting exercises there with its allies, while China, in response, is conducting its own maneuvers and turning underwater reefs into artificial islands with military bases. With the emergence of a new partnership between the United States, Britain and Australia (AUKUS), involving the construction of nuclear submarines for the latter, the situation in the region continued to heat up. In China, they even statedthat the creation of a new alliance could be a step towards a new cold war. How the South China Sea has become one of the main lines of confrontation between Beijing and Washington, and whether this crisis can develop into a military conflict – “” figured out .

Sea of ​​abundance

The territorial dispute – or rather even disputes – over the South China Sea have been going on for several decades. The main participants are Brunei, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. The main point of disagreement is two groups of tiny islets, reefs and rocks: the Spratly archipelago in the south and the Paracel Islands in the north. At first glance, this may seem rather strange. Take the Spratly archipelago, which is claimed by all six countries: the total area of ​​its islands and reefs is only five square kilometers.

It’s all about the so-called “exclusive economic zone”: according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is considered a maritime zone 200 nautical miles wide around a piece of land belonging to a particular country. In this zone, the state can engage in exploration and extraction of resources and other types of economic activities.

In other words, whoever owns a small island also owns all the resources within a radius of 200 nautical miles from it. And in the case of Spratly, the resources are serious: in the Reed Bank archipelago alone, there are about 50 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and over 5 billion barrels of oil.

In addition to minerals, the South China Sea is also rich in fish, and a huge number of trade routes pass through its water area. A smartphone made in China or Taiwan, Japanese laundry detergent and diapers, dried bananas from the Philippines – all these goods, which can often be found on Russian shelves, most likely got there through this sea.

Each of the six countries has its own claims to certain islands, often overlapping. But China has the greatest appetites: it claims more than 80 percent of the entire sea area. China considers a map dated 1947 as the basis for its “historical rights”, where Beijing’s territorial claims are marked with a nine-dotted U-line.

At the same time, the islands are not legally assigned to anyone: having suffered defeat in World War II, Japan, under the San Francisco Treaty, renounced its claims to the Spratly archipelago and the Paracel Islands, but in whose favor – the document is silent.

China began to actively defend its claims in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when significant reserves of oil and natural gas were discovered in the sea. Countries began to occupy the islands one by one, hang their flags on them, build huts and even checkpoints.

Rising tensions erupted into a military conflict between the PRC and South Vietnamese forces in 1974. The battle ended with a confident victory for Beijing and the transfer of the Paracel Islands under its control.

In 1988, another skirmish occurred between China and Vietnam – this time near the Spratly Islands. The conflict arose due to an attempt by Beijing to establish an observation post on one of the disputed reefs after receiving the appropriate permission from the international commission. Although the fighting took place in the area controlled by Vietnam, victory again remained with China, and Vietnam lost control of the South Johnson Reef and lost 64 soldiers killed. Beijing, according to its own calculations, did without losses (the Vietnamese side claimed the death of six Chinese soldiers).

In 1994, a similar conflict almost erupted between China and the Philippines. Then Beijing occupied the Mischief reef, but Manila, mindful of the sad experience of Vietnam, decided to refrain from hostilities.

As China’s influence on the international arena grew, so did its activity in the region. In 2012, he occupied Scarborough Reef and restricted access to it by Filipino fishermen. Since the mid-2010s, China has begun building artificial islands and expanding its controlled atolls and reefs with embankments.

Particularly active work was going on on the Mischief Reef: in several years, China recaptured more than 550 hectares from the sea, erected a military base and an airstrip on the reef, and deployed air defense systems. Mischief is now the largest of at least seven Chinese artificial islands.

On July 12, 2016, the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague , which was considering a claim by the Philippines, found China’s claims in the South China Sea unfounded. China refused to recognize the court’s decision, calling it “a political farce fabricated under the guise of the law,” and continued to militarize the islands.

Rule America over the seas

The territorial dispute in the South China Sea could have remained a local, purely intraregional history, if it had not been superimposed on the rivalry between China and the United States, and Beijing’s control over the sea would not have been perceived by Washington as a challenge to its national interests. Over the past three administrations, the American leadership has tried in every possible way to contain China’s activity in the region, both militarily and diplomatically. The Chinese also did not leave the actions of the Americans unanswered.

The PRC’s motives are obvious: it is through the South China Sea that most of the country’s trade turnover, including energy supplies, passes, says Carlisle Thayer, professor emeritus of the Australian Academy of the Armed Forces. “In addition, China is wary of the so-called Malacca dilemma. They believe that an enemy power can close this sea strait for shipping during the conflict, thereby damaging the economy of the PRC, “he explained in an interview with

Director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Malay University, Nzhou Chou-Bing, in turn, notes that the political and ideological aspect of the confrontation in the South China Sea is no less important for China. “The most important, in my opinion, are the issues of legitimacy and nationalism. Beijing does not want to look weak, defending what it considers to be its legitimate claims in the South China Sea, “the expert explained in a commentary to, adding that the economic side of the issue plays rather a secondary role here.

The unique location of the sea, which turns it into a kind of “sea artery” between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, is also important for Washington. It is through its water area that American warships pass from the Pacific Ocean to the Strait of Hormuz, where the 5th US Navy Fleet is based.

The United States is convinced that the American military presence contributes to peace and stability in the South China Sea and ensures the security of allies in the region, said Alexander Huang, professor at the Institute for Strategic Studies at Tamkang University (Taiwan). Moreover, Washington sees Beijing’s expansion as a threat to its positions not only in the region, but throughout the world. “They need to show their political apparatus and their own citizens that the United States is still the number one country in the world,” the expert told in a commentary.

Another important component of the American presence in the region is the principle of freedom of navigation, which has traditionally been championed by the United States. To this end, American warships regularly enter the waters of the South China, Black and Barents Seas, where, from the US point of view, their passage is permitted by international law.

“The main idea is that to ensure American economic and political interests, the region cannot be under the exclusive control or domination of another power,” said Isaac Cardon, assistant professor at the US Naval War College, in an interview with

If tomorrow is war

The ruling of the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016 did not slow down the militarization of the region. China continues to build up the islands with military infrastructure and is testing missiles – “destroyer killers”, demonstratively destroying “enemy ships” during exercises in the South China Sea.

In parallel, the US military activity is also increasing. According to Chinese experts, in 2020 it reached unprecedented proportions: the United States sent reconnaissance aircraft over 1,000 times to monitor China’s actions in the region.

All this naturally leads to military incidents. Chinese ships sometimes pass dangerously close to the US Navy, forcing the latter to make emergency maneuvers to prevent a collision. Beijing now and then has to fly fighters to intercept US aircraft, and once the Chinese military even blinded American pilots with laser beams.

Dangerous maneuvers of both countries have already led to a tragedy: in 2001, a US reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese fighter that was pursuing it collided in the sky over the South China Sea . As relations between the two countries deteriorate, similar incidents may recur, but are unlikely to escalate into a full-scale military conflict, Cardon said.

A full-scale military conflict is also hampered by the geographical features of the sea itself, Huang said. It is quite large – one and a half times the size of the Mediterranean – and is 98 percent water, the rest is small islands and rocks. It is rather difficult to conduct long-term hostilities in such conditions.

At the same time, the expert made a variant in which the conflict from the South China Sea could spill over to neighboring regions. “To divert US attention or turn the tide of hostilities in its favor, China can attack Taiwan. Or launch air strikes on the [disputed with Japan] Senkaku Islands, ”Huang said. He noted that there are many such scenarios, but the flare-up of a full-scale regional war in a single South China Sea still looks extremely unlikely.

Much more realistic, according to Cardona, is the scenario of a conflict between China and another regional state, for example, Vietnam – even more so, this has already taken place in the history of both countries. At the same time, the clash is unlikely to be large-scale and will entail US intervention.

Particular risks in this sense are not so much the PRC and Vietnamese navies, but the armed fishing vessels and coast guard ships – China has the largest in the world and has more than 130 large ships with a displacement of over 1,000 tons. Chinese fishing and police vessels often act much more aggressively than the military, harshly suppressing attempts by other countries to engage in production and fishing in disputed waters.

A war can be started by pulling the trigger or a button, but it always ends at the negotiating table, regardless of whether you are a winner or a loser.

Attempts to settle the territorial dispute diplomatically have been made more than once. The idea to develop a code of conduct in the South China Sea first appeared in the 1990s, after China’s seizure of the Mischief Reef. However, disagreements both between China and the countries of Southeast Asia and within ASEAN itself have led to the fact that for a quarter of a century the parties have almost failed to make any progress on this issue. In 2002, they agreed to adopt a declaration instead of the code, but the document was not legally binding and, in fact, only voiced the intentions of the parties, and did not offer any specific mechanisms for resolving disputes.

China and ASEAN have agreed to finalize the text of the code by 2022, but the closer the deadline, the less realistic it looks. Thayer explains that the signatory countries need to solve several painful issues at once, which have more than once led to the failure of the negotiations. Specifically, the parties need to agree on the geographic scope and legal status of the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, the dispute settlement mechanism, enforcement, and the possibility of third party intervention.

At the same time, even an imperfect code can significantly improve the situation in the region, Nzhou notes. According to the expert, it is completely impossible to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea, you can only manage the emerging risks. At the same time, even a signed and legally binding document will not insure the countries of the region against military incidents.

“I am pessimistic in the sense that this issue will always complicate relations between China and the countries of Southeast Asia. But I am optimistic in the sense that, despite this, both sides will refrain from using force, resolve crisis situations and prevent them from growing, ”he said.

Troubled waters

With the emergence of AUKUS, which is inherently directed against China, headlines appeared in the media , almost foreshadowing a war in the South China Sea.

However, Thayer urges not to exaggerate: AUKUS is not a military alliance per se – it does not have a central headquarters, and its members do not plan to carry out trilateral patrols or military exercises in the South China Sea. Moreover, according to the agreement, nuclear submarines will not appear until the 2040s. “Serious military incidents may arise more likely as a result of the deployment in the region of warships and aircraft of individual countries, especially the US Navy or Air Force,” the Australian specialist emphasized.

One should not expect China to create its own alliance in response to AUKUS either. According to Thayer, there are no people in the region wishing to join the anti-American alliance, with the exception of Pakistan. “Most likely, key ASEAN members will privately welcome the creation of AUKUS as a counterweight to China, while at the same time publicly expressing their concern about the potential destabilizing effect of the partnership on the region,” he said.

One way or another, experts interviewed by agree on one thing: without AUKUS, there were prerequisites for a further deterioration of the situation in the South China Sea. At the same time, the process of degradation will be slowed down, without any pronounced jumps and drops – China itself is not interested in the emergence of crisis situations, it is much more profitable for it to simply gradually establish de facto control over the sea.

Cardon portrays this scenario: China will gradually increase its activity in the region, neighboring countries will become more and more worried about this, and the United States will dig deeper and deeper into confrontation with China.

All this, in turn, may inevitably lead to the fact that, despite the assurances of the United States, the countries of Southeast Asia will still have to choose whose side they are on – and this is a rather difficult choice. On the one hand, China’s growing influence in the region cannot but cause concern, and its territorial claims prevent these countries from extracting resources that they consider to be theirs by right.

On the other hand, China is one of the main trading partners of the region’s countries, and breaking off relations with it is tantamount to being shot in the leg. Confidence in the United States as an ally is not added by the painful withdrawal of the Americans from Afghanistan. Against this background, comparisons of the fallen Kabul with Taiwan are heard from Beijing more and more often : they say, think, Washington will abandon you too, your government is destined for the same fate.

“It will be difficult for ASEAN members to maintain an independent position, and Southeast Asia is likely to become more polarized,” Thayer said, adding that China will be most actively opposed by the main US allies in the Indo-Pacific: Japan, India and Australia.

The confrontation between China and the United States is likely to last for more than one decade, and along with it, the situation in the South China Sea will continue to escalate. Now it is perhaps the main hotbed of tension in the entire Indo-Pacific region, affecting even those countries that are not directly involved in it – like Russia, Japan and India. A military conflict, albeit limited, is not at all in their interests.

The expert community fears that tensions will peak in the late 2020s and 2030s due to possible attempts by China to return Taiwan by force, Thayer said. “The overwhelming nationalism and arrogance of Chinese military leaders could lead them to miscalculate by challenging the United States in the South China Sea at the height of the political crisis over Taiwan,” he said.

However, both Beijing and Washington are well aware of the risks and losses associated with the conduct of hostilities. The only way to avoid them is to set aside the accumulated hostility and suspicion, sit down at the negotiating table and work out mechanisms that would allow avoiding military incidents in the South China Sea and their escalation into a full-fledged conflict between the two nuclear powers.

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