Portents of War: China, the U.S., and the Crisis in the South China Sea


Relations between Washington and Beijing have markedly deteriorated since last November; the cause of the friction – the escalating confrontation between the two countries over control of the South China Sea.

On December 10, 2015, two U.S. B-52s, on a supposedly routine mission, overflew an area of the South China Sea claimed by China. According to the Chinese Defense Ministry, one of the lumbering bombers approached within two miles of a Chinese island. Following the incident, Beijing issued a statement condemning the American action, “This behavior is a serious military provocation which complicates the general situation in the South China Sea…The Chinese army will take all necessary measures to defend the sovereignty and security of the country.” Seeking to at least temporarily diffuse tensions, the Obama administration apologized to Beijing for what the Pentagon insisted was an accidental over flight.

Then, on January 30, 2016, the USS Curtis Wilbur, a destroyer assigned to the powerful U.S. Seventh Fleet, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels. Vietnam, Taiwan, and China each claim Triton Island. The Obama administration ordered the destroyer to Triton Island to assert the U.S.’s right to freedom of navigation in international waters. Beijing, on the other hand, does not believe the sea surrounding Triton Island is in international waters. Consequently, the Chinese Defense Ministry responded to the presence of the Curtis Wilbur with another round of heated rhetoric. Beijing warned Washington, “The American warship has violated relevant Chinese laws by entering Chinese territorial waters without prior permission…Regardless of whatever provocative steps the American side takes, China’s military will take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security.” But unlike after the B-52 incident, the Obama administration made no apology for the Curtis Wilbur’s mission.

Chinese rhetoric related to its territorial claims in the South China Sea is notable for its belligerence and the absence of any mention of a Chinese willingness to agree to international arbitration. Over and over again, President Xi Jinping’s government has asserted that China is the only legitimate claimant to the South China Sea. Each time Beijing issues another uncompromising statement about the South China Sea, Xi Jinping invests more of his own, as well as China’s, prestige into the crisis, which significantly raises the stakes for every nation with an interest in the area.

On February 16, 2016, President Obama met in California with the heads of state of ASEAN to discuss the seemingly intractable problems besetting the South China Sea. He told the group of jittery leaders he hoped their territorial disputes with China could be decided without resort to war. The President stated, “Here at this summit, we can advance our shared vision of a regional order where international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, are upheld and where disputes are resolved through peaceful, legal means.” Sadly, Obama’s desire for a peaceful resolution to the crisis looks naive in light of recent Chinese words and actions.

Sometime between February 3 and February 14, and almost certainly with the ASEAN meeting in California in mind, Xi and his military commanders conveyed to Obama and ASEAN another confrontational message – this time by deploying batteries of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to the disputed Woody Island in the Paracels. Deployment of the missiles signals to the U.S. and its Southeast Asian partners that Beijing will not allow over flights of the territory claimed by China in the Paracels. This latest step by Beijing dramatically raises the probability of a military confrontation between the U.S. and China and between China and Vietnam.

China’s rhetorical responses to recent U.S. freedom of navigation exercises and over flights, and its deployment of missiles to Woody Island, are portents of war. It’s now clear that at least in the short term Beijing has no intention of resolving its claims in the South China Sea through either negotiation or international legal channels.

Xi Jinping’s policy of brinkmanship has so far worked to China’s advantage. In the past two years, the Chinese have consolidated several important positions within the Nine Dash Line by bullying its Southeast Asian neighbors, especially Vietnam.

How should the U.S. and its allies, including Australia, respond to China’s latest military move?   By letting China know through word and deed that its brinkmanship and military aggression will no longer pay dividends.  Allied nations should unceasingly confront the Chinese presence in the seas around, and skies above, the Paracels and Spratlys. Yes, such an Allied military policy risks war, but at present the allies possess naval and air superiority vis a vis the Chinese.  Moreover, a continuation of the same ambiguous and ineffectual policy of the past two years guarantees war.  The longer the U.S. and its allies buckle in the face of Chinese military activities and intimidatory rhetoric, the more difficult it will be for China to withdraw from its island positions or compromise on its territorial claims without facing an unacceptable humiliation at home and abroad.


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