Given the factors involved in US-China relations, territorial disputes in the South China Sea will not lead to open conflict.
On October 26, true to its prior announcement, the Obama administration had a US Navy warship enter waters near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The move was meant as a provocative signal to show China that Washington does not accept its territorial claims to islands and reefs in the disputed waters, while showing American support for Asian allies.
Subsequent reactions, however, showed that Beijing did not take the measure lightly. In a video conference, a high ranking Chinese admiral warned his American counterpart that the United States should tread more carefully, since even a minor incident could spark a war in the Asia Pacific.
Territorial disputes in the region’s seas are nothing new. Current conflicts mostly concern the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, where China is at odds with its Southeast Asian neighbors Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, where disputes take place between China and Japan.
The situations are similar. In both cases, the US is involved as an ally of China’s rivals, and the Chinese use historical arguments to establish their claim over the territories.
The reasons for claims over the islands and their sea territories are manifold. Although largely uninhabited, reserves of natural resources are suspected in the islands’ surroundings, and the area includes major shipping routes and fishing grounds.
According to the dominant narrative, tension rose when China took a more aggressive stance and started creating facts. First, Beijing began deploying more naval power to the areas before artificially creating islands, using them to build its build military infrastructure.
While Washington’s regional allies state their own claims over the islands, the US mostly argues that the South China Sea is international water, as defined by the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The situation is highly complex and certainly involves a risk of military conflict. But from a purely pragmatic standpoint, all sides involved know of the risks at stake and interests involved.
The US knows about the Chinese claim to leadership in East and Southeast Asia. Similarly, China knows about the concerns that Japan and Southeast Asian countries have for their security and sovereignty, which coincide with American interests to contain Chinese power and maintain the status quo in the Asia Pacific.
From a direct and open military conflict, neither side would profit.
The region, therefore, is highly unlikely to witness such a conflict. The move to send a warship within close range of an island claimed by China is a clear signal to Beijing and US allies that the America is not backing down. But given the move was announced beforehand, at the same time, it is nothing more than an orchestrated step in the games of planned and transparent escalation and de-escalation.
The Obama administration knows it cannot stop the Chinese from expanding their reach in their own backyard. Therefore, attempts to keep China as contained as possible while assuring allies of US support are easy for Beijing to read.
If all goes according to plan, China will further expand its influence in the region, which includes claims to natural and artificial islands in the South China Sea, while keeping the waters open for international trade.
As with all political conflicts, there is a risk of miscalculating the stakes and the appropriate responses. But given the current situation, an escalation without de-escalation is highly unlikely.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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