TSG IntelBrief: The Consequences of Conflict in the South China Sea
May 13, 2016

The Consequences of Conflict in the South China Sea

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• On May 10, the U.S. Navy conducted a ‘right of innocent passage’ operation near one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, leading China to scramble two fighter jets and three warships

• The South China Sea is one of the most important maritime zones in the world; it is also one of the more dangerous in terms of potential military escalation and confrontation

• China is attempting to change the ‘facts on the water’ by building up artificial islands with runways and military defenses—actions strongly opposed by neighboring countries

• The consequences of accidental military confrontation between China, which is determined to expand its sphere of influence, and the U.S., which is determined to maintain its naval influence in the region, cannot be overstated.

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One of the world’s most explosive hotspots is located far away from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. In the South China Sea, tensions have risen to new and worrying levels, as China continues to build up several contested island chains. On May 10, the U.S. Navy sailed a destroyer within 12 miles of the 700-acre Fiery Cross Reef—a man-made island that did not exist two years ago. China has built up several small atolls sufficiently enough to accommodate a military-capable runway, a sheltered port, and a garrison of soldiers. The Chinese government has made a 12-mile territorial claim around the contested islands, as well as a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—both of which are normal claims for a country seeking to protect its maritime interests and resources.

In the South China Sea, however, no territorial or EEZ claims can be referred to as ‘normal.’ With China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines all having made various claims on the Spratly Islands—of which Fiery Cross Reef is a small part—China’s claims are a part of a complex puzzle of overlapping territory, tensions, and potential future conflict. The U.S. has not taken sides in the long-running dispute between China and its much smaller neighbors, but it has stated that the United Nations should settle the matter, and that it will not abide by specious claims of restricted waters that limit the freedom of navigation. The May 10 U.S. patrol was the third such operation conducted by the U.S. Navy near islands claimed by China. In October 2015, the Navy sailed by another Chinese-constructed artificial island in the Spratly chain, and in January 2016, it tested the 12-mile claim in another contested island chain in the South China Sea—the Paracel Islands.

An international tribunal at The Hague is soon expected to hand down a decision in a case brought by against China by the Philippines regarding the Spratly Islands. However, given China’s efforts to expand what it sees as its historical sphere of influence, it is unlikely to accept the tribunaI’s ruling. The issues surrounding the contested waters are in part economic, with immense natural resources in the area in terms of fishing, oil, and natural gas. From the U.S. standpoint, though, it is the militarization of China’s claims that is the most pressing concern. China, for its part, has seriously objected to U.S. naval operations intended to test its claims. From a legal standpoint, Chinese objections have little merit, as international law does not allow for a country to claim 12 miles of territorial waters around artificial islands. Nonetheless, a very real possibility for escalation exists, as China’s objections could lead to shots being fired in warning—or worse. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet was scrambled to warn off a U.S. Navy EP-3E signals intelligence plane flying over the South China Sea. The jet crashed after flying too close to the U.S. aircraft, and the U.S. plane was forced to make an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. China held the U.S. crew members for ten days before releasing them. 

In response to repeated ‘freedom of navigation’ operations, China has threatened to take undetermined action against U.S. vessels passing by its contested islands. Aggressive interceptions and maneuverings that involve armed Chinese aircraft and ships are a recipe for accidents, which could very easily lead to conflict. A similar dynamic is taking place between the U.S. and its NATO allies and Russia, with several incidents of Russian jets toeing the line between bravado and dangerous. Long-accepted rules of engagement governing interaction between military forces exist for a reason; failure to abide by these rules can rapidly spiral out of control. As such, the tensions and trend lines in the South China Sea—an area of enormous economic and strategic value—are increasingly worrisome. With both China and the U.S. unlikely to change course, more close calls and increasing tensions are likely.

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