The red line shows China’s territorial claim, which an international court ruled was illegitimate. Image source: Wikipedia
A war between the United States and China over the South China Sea dispute is far more likely than you might think.
Some observers believe a new international court decision makes such a conflict even more likely.
Unfortunately, the US media has largely ignored this development, even though some observers believe it might lead to an armed conflict – even World War III.
Here is what you should know:
1. The conflict involves the South China Sea, which China claims is part of its territory. The US, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and other nations say the area is international waters and therefore open to all countries to use. The Chinese claim they have the right to block other nations’ navies and air forces from operating in the region. Both China and the Philippines, a close American ally, claim the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Chinese military forces have occupied some of the islands and started building fortified bases there. The bases include ports and airstrips.
2. The Philippines sued China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands – and won. The court July 12 ruled that China has no rights to the islands and was in violation of international law with its actions. China, so far, has ignored the ruling.
The US maintains it has the right to operate its military forces in the region. The Chinese are not backing down.
“We in China would not be intimidated by the U.S. actions, not even if the U.S. sent all 10 aircraft carriers to the South China Sea,” said Dai Bingguo, former state councilor of China. He said the court’s ruling “amounts to nothing more than a piece of waste paper.”
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The risk for the US, he said, “is that it may be dragged into trouble against its own will and pay an unexpectedly heavy price.”
3. China is deploying military forces – including nuclear submarines. The Chinese Navy closed off a portion of the South China Sea for maneuvers on July 18, the Associated Press reported. The Chinese Coast Guard is keeping Philippine fishing boats away from a contested shoal.
China’s Liberation Air Force released a picture of one of its H-6K bombers flying over Scarborough Shoal, one of the islands on July 14, Forbes reported. The H-6K is capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
China is a major naval power. The US Office of Naval Intelligence reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Navy operates five nuclear-powered attack submarines, four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and more than 50 diesel-electric attack submarines.
China is set to deploy nuclear submarines in the region, which increases the possibility of an accident.
4. The US Navy is patrolling in the area, increasing the possibility of conflict.
“With the US Navy sailing more and more in the area, there’s a high possibility there will be an accident,” an unidentified Chinese Navy officer told Newsweek.
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China’s military power is no match for America’s at present – but that doesn’t mean a conflict won’t happen. It also assumes other nations won’t get involved. As Newsweek noted, “history is riddled with wars that appeared to make no sense.”
A dangerous wild card in the South China Sea is Russia. The Morning Post reported that the Japanese government is studying the possibility of naval cooperation between Russia and China in the South China Sea. Russia is selling China large amounts of modern weaponry, including fighter jets and missile defense systems.
5. There is popular support within China for a tough stance in the South China Sea. Some observers think the government of current Chinese President Xi Jinping could lose popular support and collapse if he does not get tough with the US.
“The people won’t tolerate it if we lose territory yet again,” Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for China’s National People’s Congress told Newsweek, referencing wars from the past 150 years. “We’ve lost enough.”
6. The conflict is routed in history. Many Chinese view the South China Sea as their territory, because Chinese emperors claimed the body of water as part of their empire. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Chinese felt humiliated when British, Japanese and American navies took control of the South China Sea. Some Chinese patriots view the reoccupation of the South China Sea as the beginning of the rise of their nation to superpower status. Part of this worldview is the belief that China will one day supplant America as the world’s dominant power.
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