The South China Sea as U.S.-China Geopolitical Friction Point

Taiwan, North Korea, the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands, and the South China Sea are all potential flash-points of conflict in the security affairs of Asia. For China, the Taiwan issue is undoubtedly the most crucial among all regional issues. However, as China and the United States have some degree of consensus on the potential impact of the Taiwan issue, in the short term, the likelihood of a “hot war” over the island remains relatively low, despite the situation in Taiwan is moving towards instability. As China-Japan relations improve, the likelihood of the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands issue becoming an actual conflict between China and Japan is almost non-existent. As for the North Korean issue, China is not actually a direct participant, and judging from the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, the actual risk of conflict is very small. Compared with the above three, the South China Sea issue is the most likely area for “accidental clashes” and even armed conflicts between China and the U.S. in the short term.

The reasons for this phenomenon can be viewed from both political and military perspectives. The South China Sea issue has different importance in the geostrategic planning of China and the U.S. More importantly, some analysts in China seriously misunderstand the importance of the South China Sea issue to the United States. Taking the “Taiwan issue” as an example. Although China and the United States still have different views on the importance of the Taiwan issue, they both know very well that their strategic space on the Taiwan issue is very limited. Therefore, neither side is likely to use the “Taiwan issue” to test the other’s bottom line.

However, there is a huge cognitive difference between China and the U.S. on the South China Sea issue. For the U.S., the South China Sea issue is even as important as the Taiwan issue, because the Taiwan issue is ultimately an “ally” security issue, even if the U.S. “loses” Taiwan, the United States still has Hawaii and Australia. However, the South China Sea issue has a direct impact on the core interests of the United States in Asia and even in the world, i.e., the world’s maritime hegemony. More specifically, America’s maritime supremacy is determined by two factors: First, America’s ability to influence; and second, America’s rights and obligations as a maritime hegemon.

The ability of the U.S. to influence depends on the strength of the U.S. Navy, which no country has yet achieved. On the second question, the South China Sea issue reflects the obligations and rights that the United States, as a maritime hegemon has, namely the right to free navigation and the responsibility to protect the safety of international trade waterways.

First, if China takes effective control of the South China Sea within the “nine-dash line”, the U.S. will consider it as undermining its “freedom of navigation rights”. Second, from the U.S. perspective, allowing China to take full control of one of the world’s most important international waterways means the U.S. cannot establish the most basic order for its Allies or the world economic system it dominates.

From the military perspective, the geographical characteristics of the South China Sea region determine that the conflicts in this region will be mainly maritime conflicts. Compared with other forms of warfare, maritime conflict is a highly specialized field that rarely involves large-scale civilian casualties. In other words, perhaps the conflict in the South China Sea is “controllable” in the eyes of both sides. That being said, it would be easy to have an illusion that even if there is a hot war in the South China Sea, it would not jeopardise the overall situation. This is the “controllability” of the conflict in the South China Sea that many people imagine.

This could be a dangerous illusion, because once a conflict breaks out, it will not be possible to proceed in the form envisaged. For example, with China’s existing naval capabilities, it would have to rely on the support from the inland to compete with the Pacific Fleet, in which case the United States could strike targets in the inland, resulting in greater casualties and impact. More importantly, there is an assumption in both China and the U.S. that if there is a real conflict in the South China Sea, both sides have the potential to use (tactical) nuclear weapons. Once a party uses nuclear weapons, no one can predict how far the situation will go. Judging by the current situation, the U.S. Navy and Air Force would have the greatest advantage in a possible conflict in the South China Sea.

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