Although few Americans seem to have noticed, China and the United States are currently on a collision course—one that could easily lead to war.
Their dispute, which has reached the level of military confrontation, concerns control of the South China Sea. For many years, China has claimed sovereignty over 90 percent of this vast, island-studded region—a major maritime trade route rich in oil, natural gas, and lucrative fishing areas. But competing claims for portions of the South China Sea have been made for decades by other nations that adjoin it, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Starting in 2013, China began to assert its control more forcefully by island-building in the Paracel and Spratly Islands—expanding island size or creating new islands while constructing ports, airstrips, and military installations on them.
Other countries, however, protested Chinese behavior. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, acting on a complaint by the Philippines that Chinese action violated the freedom of navigation guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, decided in favor of the Philippines, although it did not rule on the ownership of the islands. In response, the government of China, a party to the UN treaty, refused to accept the court’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the U.S. government, which was not a party to the treaty, insisted on the treaty’s guarantee of free navigation and proceeded to challenge China by sailing its warships through waters claimed by the Chinese government.
Actually, the positions of the Chinese and U.S. governments both have some merit. The Chinese, after all, conducted a variety of operations in this maritime region for millennia. Also, some of the islands are currently controlled by other claimants (such as Vietnam), and China has been working for years with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a Code of Conduct that might finally resolve the regional dispute. Nevertheless, the U.S. government can point to China’s provocative militarization of the islands, the rejection of China’s stance by most other nations in Southeast Asia, and the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
But the bottom line is that the issue of legitimate control remains unclear and, meanwhile, both the Chinese and U.S. governments are engaging in reckless behavior that could lead to disaster.
The U.S. military buildup in the South China Sea is quite striking. As defense analyst Michael Klare wrote recently: “Every Pacific-based US submarine is now deployed in the area . . . the Air Force has sent B-1 bombers overhead; and the Army is practicing to seize Chinese-claimed islands.” Furthermore, in the past few months, the U.S. Navy has repeatedly sent missile-armed destroyers on provocative “freedom of navigation operations” into the waters just off the Chinese-occupied islands. In July alone, the U.S. government deployed two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan) to the South China Sea, accompanied by squadrons of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. This powerful U.S. armada was reinforced by two supersonic bombers and a nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress.
In response, China’s government has vigorous reasserted China’s claims in the South China Sea. To demonstrate its determination, it has frequently deployed ships and planes of its own to shadow or harass American warships, sometimes escorting them out of the area. At the same time, it has stepped up Chinese naval operations in the East and South China Seas. In April, China’s first operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, moved into the region. “China has several times experienced the threats posed by the U.S. in the [South China] Sea,” a retired Chinese naval officer announced on government media. But “China’s resolve to safeguard its territorial integrity, sovereignty, and maritime interests will not waver [after] the latest threat posed by the U.S. The Chinese military is prepared and will deal with the threat.”
This growing military confrontation has been accompanied by an escalating war of words. Although previous U.S. policy called for a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbors, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced a much harder line. In an official statement on July 13, he declared that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.” The United States “stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights.” On July 23, Pompeo issued an inflammatory, across-the-board denunciation of China’s foreign and domestic policies, proclaiming that “the free world will triumph over this new tyranny.”
Responding to Pompeo, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed that China was working with all parties to the South China Sea dispute to settle it through negotiations. By contrast, he said, U.S. military operations in the area were designed to create tensions in the region. Furthermore, it was the U.S. government that violated international law and withdrew from international organizations and treaties.
Clearly, despite their professed concern for international law, the governments of the United States and China are engaged in a 21st century-style gunboat diplomacy—one that, either intentionally or unintentionally, could escalate into war, even nuclear war.
If these two nuclear-armed governments are serious about settling the dispute over control of the South China Sea, they should call a halt to their provocative military operations and leave the job of sorting things out to the United Nations. After all, resolving international conflicts is why the United States, China, and other countries created the world organization in the first place. No single nation, however powerful its military forces, has the respect and credibility in the world community that the United Nations enjoys. Nor does it have the legitimacy. It’s time the governments of these two nations recognized these facts and ceased their threatening and dangerous military behavior.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner (https://www.lawrenceswittner.com/ ) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).