The growing tensions between the US and China in South China Sea could soon lead to war between the two global powers. One American think tank even went as far as claiming this could happen in the next 18 months if the situation continues to deteriorate.

Red Alert: South China Sea

The US Navy has recently deployed its ships twice in the South China sea to challenge China’s influence in the marginal sea that measures approximately 3,500,000 square kilometres. To flex its muscles and in a bid to exert its influence, China is also deploying its two aircraft carriers Liaoning and Shandong in the sea to conduct military drills.

The war games come at a time when the rift between China and US is widening over the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s efforts to tighten its control over Hong Kong by introducing new security laws. Behind the current schism is China’s attempts to build its influence in the South China Sea by controlling the busy sea route and annexing some of the contested Islands .

The fact that US has defense pacts with some of the countries that are currently engaged in disputes with China over the control of the islands makes war even more likely.

Simulated Chinese Invasion

In mid may a Japanese online newspaper revealed that the People Liberation Army of China was planning to conduct a simulated invasion of the Dongsha Islands in August . Although Dongsha Islands are under the control of Taiwan which considers them part of Dongsha Atoll National Park, Beijing claims them as part of its Guangdong province.

On May 13 China’s state controlled Global Times reported that the Chinese Army Chief  had announced that  Dongsha Islands are strategically located and the Chinese army could annex them if Taiwan secessionists insists on secession. This was in response secessionists who have been calling for Taiwan’s total independence from China, something Beijing has ruled out.

Similar remarks were made by Li Zhansu chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress who said, “There is only one China in the world and both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China. We sternly warn Taiwan secessionists that Taiwan independence is a dead end. Those who defy the law are bound to receive harsh punishment.”

American Obligation to Defend Taiwan

Under the Taiwan Relations Act enacted in in 1979 by the US Congress, US considers Taiwan a sub-sovereign foreign state. This means the US treats Taiwan as one of the “foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities” and not as an extension of China.

The Act states that , “United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities.”
However it remains vague on whether the US could come to Taiwan’s aid in case China decides to go ahead with an invasion.

This was intentionally done to dissuade Taiwan from declaring itself independent and to deter Beijing from unifying Taiwan with People’s Republic of China. Instead the nature of military support the US is could give Taiwan in case of invasion was left upon the President and the Congress to decide.

This means that if China and Taiwan were to clash over the Dongsha, it would be upon Trump and the Congress to decide. With the Republicans controlling the Congress the final decision would almost be unilateral. The US under Trump has been more pro-Taiwan, and there’s no doubt that any invasion of Taiwan could attract a strong response.

Would the US Really Step Up to Defend Taiwan?

However , questions have been emerging about US’s ability to protect Taiwan. In early May one Pentagon source quoted by The Times said, “the US would lose a war with China fought in the Pacific and is unable to defend Taiwan.” Almost simultaneous with the revelation was Trump’s announcement that US is building an advanced missile which he said would be 17 times faster than its current missiles.

Apart from Taiwan, China has also been targeting the Islands of Paracel and the Spratlys which are claimed by a number of countries. Although these islands are largely unoccupied, it is claimed they hold large reserves of minerals apart from being home to major fishing grounds. In claiming the Islands China has always based its argument on a 1947 historical map which it says shows the two islands within its territory.

The claims have, however, been disputed by Vietnam which argues that Beijing only started claiming the ownership of the Islands after the 1940s. According to Vietnam, the islands have been under its control from the 17th century .

Another claimant is Philippines which cites its proximity to the contested Islands as proof of ownership. In 2013 , it took China to an arbitration tribunal constituted under the Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The tribunal ruled in Philippines’ favour accusing China of violating Philippines’ sovereign rights. China rejected the decision and vowed not to abide by it.

Again if a was to erupt between China and Philippines’ over the contested Islands, then US could find itself at the center of it. This is because US and the Philippines have a defence pact that states that both nations would support each other if one of them come under attack.

The Chance of War is Real

Apart from disputes over the islands, a war could erupt between China and US because of their efforts to control the South China sea shipping route, which accounts for one third of global trade by sea. According to data every year an estimated $5.3 trillion worth of goods transit through the South China Sea, with $1.2 trillion accounting for trade with the US.

According to US think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “ the United has a strong interest in preventing China from asserting control over the South China sea.” This is because “maintaining free and open access to this waterway is not only important for economic reasons, but also to uphold the global norm of freedom of navigation.”

This was recently  made clear in a statement issued by Lt. Anthony Junco a spokesperson for the US Navy’s 7th fleet , who said that by conducting operations in the South China Sea, the “United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea. “

To avoid the two nations going to war, CFR says US can handle the situation better by preventing “Chinese expansion, ideally while avoiding a dangerous confrontation and being prepared to deftly manage any crises should they arise.” The preventive options could involve a mix diplomatic and military strategies.

First by deterrence through the threat of punishment, meaning US threatening China that any move would be met by greater force. Second would be deterrence by denial, which would involve US convincing China that it won’t succeed if it tried. Third, the US could tolerate China by convincing it to “accept more limited aims in the South China Sea and pursue those aims through transparent and cooperative tactics.”

Which path will be taken remains to be seen, but there is a real chance of war.