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South China Sea Headed towards US-China Military Showdown

Paper No 5955                                   Dated 16-June-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

South China Sea seems inevitably headed towards witnessing a military showdown with a revisionist and strategically arrogant China rigidly insistent on altering the status quo in the South China Sea in defiance of United States advisories to halt construction of artificial islands to enforce its sovereignty claims in disputed waters.

China seems to be politically and strategically over-reaching itself buoyed by its new-found military strength and misreading United States military intentions in terms of its resolve to enforce its national security interests in the South China Sea region. The United States itself is to blame for leading China down this path of challenging the unipolar superpower by being permissive on China’s military adventurism in the South China Sea at the expense of its relatively militarily weaker neighbours.

South China Sea has been witnessing a ‘Gathering Storm’ as reflected in a recent SAAG Paper of mine and the imperatives of the United States to pre-empt China’s destabilising moves. Recent United States official statements and military moves indicate that the United States has finally woken up to the reality that China by its military brinkmanship in the South China Sea was imposing its dubious claims on Vietnam and the Philippines but in effect was all out to challenge United States supremacy in the Western Pacific as a prelude to pushing out the United States out of the Pacific.

United States rhetoric on the ‘freedom of the seas’ through the ‘global commons’ implying the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea made no sense to an arrogant China as the United States had made no definitive declarations on its national security interests in the South China Sea. The United States has finally woken up to the stark reality that China’s construction of seven artificial islands with US surveillance photographs showing military hardware being emplaced is an adverse game-changer for the United States.

Analyses of these military developments betray China’s military intentions and its two-pronged strategy in the South China Sea to establish Chinese full-spectrum dominance of the South China Sea. The first prong is to extend China’s sovereign spread over the South China Sea by claiming the 12 mile- territorial limit around each of these newly constructed islands and an extended EEZ. This is not tenable under international laws as such territorial limits only apply to natural landforms and not artificial man-made islands.

The second prong of China’s strategy is that the Chinese artificially constructed islands would serve as mini-bases for emplacing air defence missile, anti-ship missiles, and surveillance radars sand naval attack craft with the prime aim of denying the United States access to Western Pacific and deter USA from any military intervention. Such platforms could enable China to prevent USA from sending its naval ships and aircraft to South Chinese islands under Chinese occupation. This also has to be read as a precursor to China declaring a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea. Surely this is a strategic challenge to the United States and a blatant attempt to change the status quo in the South China Sea with the end aim of converting the South China Sea into an Inland Sea of China.

The United States in the last few months has commenced issuing statements challenging China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea. The US President is reported to have declared that the United States does not accept China’s logic of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea   and cautioned China not to indulge in an endless creation of artificial islands in disputed waters.US Assistant Secretary of State in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stated “US pressure is needed in South China Sea to ensure everyone with an interest in the area follows international law. No matter how much sand you pile on reefs, you can’t manufacture sovereignty.”  More significantly, Russel told the Committee that US must use in his words “all instruments of power” to push back what he called “problematic behaviour”

The Pentagon is planning to send US Navy ships and US Air Force aircraft over the disputed areas both for surveillance and more importantly enforcing the right of passage over international waters and air space.

Now shifting to China’s responses carried in the Chinese official organ-The Global Times, to the above, undoubtedly they reflect belligerence and provocative stances against the United States. These are quoted verbatim below:

·       “For China, the most important bottom line is to make the construction on the reefs continue until they are completed.”

·       “If the United States bottom line is that China has to shut down its construction on the reefs, then a US-China war is inevitable. The intensity of the conflict will be higher than what people usually think of as friction.”

Concluding all that can be said is that China is spoiling for a military conflict with the United States over the South China Sea. The United States has to take a call sooner or later that a US-China war is inevitable and that China in its present belligerent mood may resort to an “Electronic Pearl Harbour” attack combined with a pre-emptive missile attacks, maybe nuclear possibly. Far- fetched, maybe, but yet within the realms of possibility when China’s propensity to resort to armed conflict when challenged.