China is deploying long-distance bombers, while the US is sending out destroyers on patrol. Though the tension in the South China Sea is mounting, DW’s Frank Sieren is doubtful it will turn into a military conflict.
Beijing spoke of a “provocation” that was a “serious violation of Chinese sovereignty” after two US warships – the destroyer USS Higgins and the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam – passed by the Paracel Islands on May 27, escalating the territorial dispute over the South China Sea.
According to Beijing says that the ships entered Chinese territory without permission. Washington’s response was that this was a routine mission in accordance with “international law.”
The dispute isn’t just about a few islands, most of which are just rocks in the middle of nowhere. The South China Sea is one of the most important maritime routes in Asia, with goods worth over $5 trillion (€4.2 trillion) being transported annually. There are important oil and gas reserves under the sea and fishing is of huge significance.
China lays claim to 80 percent of the 3.5 million square meter territory, but Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei dispute this claim. In 2016, the International Court of Justice in The Hague rejected China’s claims after a complaint by the Philippines. Beijing has since ignored the judgment and continued to expand its presence in the region.
The outcome of the dispute over the South China Sea will help to decide whether China, as it grows increasingly powerful, is able to reduce the US’s presence in Asia, alongside the results of the negotiations over the Korean peninsula.
Though the US military claimed that its mission was not a “political statement” against any country in particular, the timing was far from random. Two weeks ago, the US disinvited China from international military exercises that have taken place every two years since 1974, citing “China’s moves to militarize” the South China Sea. Beijing apparentlyrecently tested long-distance bombersequipped for nuclear attacks in the region. This followed the creation of artificial islands – supposedly for the fishing industry – and Chinese development of missile-defense systems on the uninhabited Spratly Islands.
The US Department of Defense said that these bomber maneuvers intensify the tensions and destabilize the region. The Chinese ministry of defense retorted that such maneuvers were crucial for strengthening China’s navy and air force and improving the country’s defense capabilities.
Could a military conflict actually occur after threats of a trade war and the verbal battles that Beijing and Washington have engaged in since US President Donald Trump entered the scene? One might think that Beijing is rapidly preparing itself for this: Over the past three years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has driven forward the biggest structural military reform in recent Asian history. The idea is to have a modern and skillful People’s Liberation Army by 2020 when the army, air force and navy come under one central command.
Moreover, China wants to be in a position to deploy its military force, especially the navy, over long distances. Since 2000, China has built more corvettes, destroyers, frigates and submarines than Japan, South Korea and India put together. Earlier this month, the first aircraft carrier built entirely by China enjoyed its maiden voyage.
US remains strongest maritime power
The rumor in Chinese military circles has it that China intends to expand its fleet by five or six more aircraft carriers so that it can deploy two in the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean respectively. Still, China is not close to catching up with the US. With its 10 air craft carriers, the US is the greatest maritime power in the world. By increasing the US’s military budget generously, Trump has made it clear that this is to remain the case.
Under Trump, the US insists on carrying out its “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea. At the beginning of the year, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis traveled to Vietnam and Indonesia to intensify military cooperation in the region. In November 2017 China agreed to further negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in order to find a peaceful solution to the territorial disputes that have gone on for years.
Trump doesn’t want a war
Since China is working increasingly closer with its neighbors, including in the context of the new Silk Road, it has a better hand at the negotiating table. Long-term prosperity is more attractive than the military presence of a protective police officer who does not take that much interest in the interests of its former allies.
If states to not want to be protected, then even the US will not be able to justify military conflict in the region. By sending a destroyer in the direction of the disputed islands, Trump’s message is clear: He wants to build up pressure in order to achieve more concessions in economic matters.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.