Military Escalations in South China Sea

By Andrej Mrevlje |
South China Sea: a map of chinese desires

They called it the Shangri-La Dialogue, in which Shangri-La stood for a mystical, harmonious valley — synonymous with any earthly paradise, but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia, a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. A paradox, since the meeting that takes place every year in Singapore is actually a summit on Asian security, attended by generals and defence ministers from 52 countries.    

It was a bad meeting, full of pessimism this year. The EurAsia Review reported that China and the U.S. were in deadlock, each accusing the other of escalating the situation in the South China Sea and refusing to back down or compromise.  

Only a couple of years ago, today’s South China Sea incidents would have sounded more like fiction. Today, the waste area of the South China Sea is a territory where several countries, including two superpowers, are conducting a massive arms race. The hottest military spot on Earth can no longer be considered the Demilitarized Zone that serves as the border between North and South Korea, with both countries provoking each other and flexing their muscles on a daily basis. The South China Sea — where most of the world’s cargo passes; where there might be more important undersea oil deposits; and where, above all, the interests of the two superpowers cross — is quickly surpassing the Demilitarized Zone in its contentiousness. Meanwhile, China and the U.S. still haven’t decided whether they intend to negotiate or to battle for the world dominance.

“China historically has been a land power, not a maritime power. Although China has been involved in the maritime sphere for centuries and Chinese merchants have been active throughout Southeast Asia, the country’s geography, natural resources, population pressures and neighbors have both allowed and encouraged Chinese leaders to focus their attention on the country’s vast territory and land borders,” Stratfor reports.

But because of the country’s two primary concerns — economic resources and strategic access — China started to project its power far beyond its natural borders some years ago. First came the modernization of its army and navy. Then, more recently, China started to expand into the South China Sea. In 2012, the country claimed part of the South China Sea as a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that the United Nations Convention granted to countries that bordered a given sea under the Law of the Sea. The West has called the Chinese strategy “salami-slicing”:

The goal of Beijing’s salami-slicing would be to gradually accumulate, through small but persistent acts, evidence of China’s enduring presence in its claimed territory, with the intention of having that claim smudge out the economic rights granted by UNCLOS and perhaps even the right of ships and aircraft to transit what are now considered to be global commons. With new “facts on the ground” slowly but cumulatively established, China would hope to establish de facto and de jure settlements of its claims.

A year ago, when things started to accelerate, I wrote a story that explained the background that led to this increased tension at the time without creating an immediate danger of conflict:

While China is knocking at the door of the world to expand its power, the West – and especially the U.S. – is not ready to hand over the keys. China has caught the West’s attention by expanding the surface of minuscule islands in the Spratlys, pumping sand from under the ocean and building airstrips and military structures on the newly expanded islands. The process is known as land reclamation and is part of regular practice to expand the surface of small reefs and archipelagos. So far, it has been left to U.S. media and government analysts to parse the meaning of the Chinese projects for the American public.

But since this time last year, things have started to develop very quickly. U.S. satellite and spy plane surveillance reports daily on the progress of Chinese construction of the artificial islands. The reports are meant to create a hostile attitude towards China, but that has not stopped Beijing. At first, China’s strategy just looked like a plea for attention and negotiation, but it later on turned out to be a very determined strategy to take control of the region and to gradually push the Americans out. One military report tells us that:

Chinese naval analysts have studied the Cold War at sea carefully. That is especially true with respect to ASW. The map at right has appeared many times in Chinese naval journals and illustrates close attention to the role of ASW barriers in naval strategy and of ocean-floor sensor arrays within such a barrier strategy. These analysts know that the

U.S. Navy was already capable in the early 1960s of using ocean- floor sensors to track its own initial deployment of “boomers,” notably including the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) pictured here. One quandary for China is how to defeat U.S

Navy ASW barriers in the Western Pacific, while at the same time erecting its own such barriers in the same region.

According to this and other reports, China is steadily increasing its number of submarines and is developing weapons capable of stopping America’s mighty aircraft carriers. Years ago, China bought an old Soviet aircraft carrier and rebuilt it for its own needs. But compared to the latest generation of American nuclear aircraft carriers, Liaoning seems like a little toy. While the huge floating airports that America possesses seem to be too difficult for the Chinese to build (though China has a plan to continue with construction of its own airplane carriers), Beijing seems to be more successful in reclaiming land in the middle of the ocean by building islands out of small reefs. But the question is, can those islands compete against the fast-moving, modern American navy?

However, China’s military escalation in the area makes the Pentagon nervous, and the United States is not standing with its arms crossed. They are gearing up to counter this, Foreign Policy reported last year:

The emerging threat from China in particular has prompted American naval commanders to reevaluate their war-fighting strategy and to rush work on a new anti-ship missile for surface ships. The Pentagon plans to modify existing missiles that initially had been designed for other purposes, starting with the Tomahawk, which traditionally had been used against stationary targets on land.

Naval officers are also recognizing that the United States can no longer assume it will rule the waves or avoid significant casualties in a possible conflict with China. The old idea of a methodical campaign to take out air and other defenses is being replaced by a scenario in which U.S. forces move quickly and more stealthily, countering an adversary without necessarily achieving outright victory.

The result? Even more close encounters between the two mighty armies. While the American navy is testing the Chinese by flying over and sailing by the little islands that China has built, the Chinese are responding with other types of provocations.

On May 19, China and the U.S. were very close to another military incident, similar to the one that happened 15 years ago, when two Chinese military jets flew too close to an American spy plane. One Chinese jet crashed, while the American EP-3 was forced to land on the Chinese island of Hainan, where it was kept for months.

This time, the situation ended slightly differently: the Americans flew the same kind of EP-3 plane — probably spying on the movements of Chinese submarines — while the Chinese were flying better jets, and obviously had better-trained pilots in the cockpit than 15 years ago. This crash was avoided, but the daily risk of more dangerous encounters persists, as Sam Bateman observes for East Asia Forum.

However, there seems to be no immediate danger — at least, as long as the two sides continue to have these kinds of high-level bilateral meetings, keeping the channels of communications open.

But Gideon Rachman articulates a potential danger in Singapore’s Straits Times:

Chinese President Xi Jinping is taking his country in radical and risky new directions.

If his new policies succeed, then the Xi era will be remembered for the achievement of his often-stated goal of the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. But if Mr Xi’s experiments go wrong, then his legacy is likely to be political turmoil, economic stagnation and international confrontation.

What Mr Xi has done is essentially to abandon the formula that has driven China’s rise over the past 30 years. That formula was created by Deng Xiaoping after he came to power in late 1978, and then refined by his successors. It consisted of three key ingredients – political, economic and international.

The key to the Deng formula that created modern China was the primacy of economics. Domestic politics and foreign policy were constructed to create the perfect environment for a Chinese economic miracle. With Mr Xi, however, political and foreign policy imperatives frequently appear to trump economics. That change in formula looks risky for both China and the world.

Add to this the fact that, in the U.S., both of the two viable candidates for the White House — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — are military hawks, and perhaps we really are heading towards a very, very uncertain period.  

Also published on Medium.

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