Flashpoints | Security

China-US Military Confrontation in the South China Sea: Fact and Fiction

The China-U.S. rivalry in the South China Sea is certainly growing, but war is still some way off.

By Hu Bo for
China-US Military Confrontation in the South China Sea: Fact and Fiction

The amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) transits the Pacific Ocean Feb. 15, 2020.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas V. Huynh

No one doubts that the military competition and frictions are real and serious between China and the United States in the South China Sea, when they have rivalrous intentions, tit-for-tat strategies, and daily operational confrontations. China is accused of coercing U.S. allies and partners, militarizing disputed features, and seeking regional hegemony, and the United States is considered to be playing the South China Sea card and containing China’s rise as a maritime power. In the context of overall intensified strategic competition between the two countries, the South China Sea is even less likely to be an exception.

But the question remains: how fierce will the competition be? When every day is filled with news of maritime standoffs between China and the United States, many may wonder, will China and the U.S. slip into military conflict?

Both sides have reasons to maintain and expand their military presence in the South China Sea. China is the largest littoral state of the South China Sea, and has important interests at stake: territorial sovereignty, jurisdictional waters, and sea lanes of communication. With China’s military modernization, it is natural that more and more military platforms are active in the area. Meanwhile the United States thinks highly of maritime predominance, freedom of navigation, and security commitments to regional states. Thus, since the end of World War II, the United States has maintained the most powerful military presence and executed a variety of complex military operations in the South China Sea.

For a long time after World War II, due to China’s weak naval and air forces, there were not many chances for Chinese and American military forces to encounter each other at sea. However, much has changed in the past decade. On the one hand, China’s capacity has rapidly increased, and the progress of the navy and air force is particularly impressive. On the other hand, the United States has grown increasingly worried about China’s rising power and significantly strengthened its naval and air presence since 2009. U.S. aircraft sorties increased by 100 percent to about 1,500, and surface ship presence increased by 60 percent to around 1,000 ship days per year. In this context, frequent military- to-military encounters are inevitable.

Neither side is comfortable with the changing situation. The U.S. military is used to being unparalleled and unchallengeable in the South China Sea and is not ready to accommodate China’s maritime rise. Although the People’s Liberation Army is already very strong materially, it is still a novice spiritually and in the process of learning how to interact with its American counterparts as a mature power.

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But neither side seems to have much to offer other than peaceful coexistence. If both sides develop normally, in terms of power, the future of the South China Sea would be a bipolar region, regardless what kind of intentions they have. Moreover, most countries in the region are reluctant to take sides in the China-U.S. power competition. Therefore, it is hard for either side to re-establish a dominant order here.

As the power distribution becomes more balanced, the idea of a managed military conflict is fanciful. One side’s provocation will inevitably invite the other’s retaliation, where spiral escalation is highly possible. Considering that both sides have so many weapon platforms and both are major nuclear powers, the feasibility of a military solution has greatly diminished.

The China-U.S. rivalry in the South China Sea is certainly growing, but war is still some way off. There are several maritime encounters between the two sides every day, and thousands every year. Most of them are professional and safe; only a few have involved some risks. The recent pandemic has made both countries and militaries more sensitive, which, to some extent, has heightened the tension of the situation.

Because of COVID-19, China and the United States are more concerned and anxious about each other. In addition to maintaining daily operations in the western Pacific, both sides have some new worries. The United States is concerned that China would take advantage of the temporary power vacuum; thus it has deliberately shown more force and given China more diplomatic pressure. China feels that Washington’s South China Sea policy is increasingly desperate to the point that, even during the pandemic, the United States has not forgotten to provoke China. Beijing is also convinced that the U.S., motivated by power competition, is focusing on China’s activities and ignoring the actions of other claimants.

From mid-April to early May, the U.S. Navy dispatched several warships, including USS America LHA-6, to the so-called standoff area between the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and the West Capella to deter China’s operations. The PLA Navy was believed to have a similar number of warships there at the same time, which aroused heated discussion among the media and experts. Another less publicized but more intense case was the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance of China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning formation when it was conducting open sea cross-region mobile training while followed by American warships and multiple military aircraft. An anonymous PLA Navy officer revealed that the confrontation was so intense that one U.S. warship even once came within 100 meters of the Chinese carrier.

Even so, both sides have remained largely professional and restrained. In fact, neither the Chinese military nor the American military has increased its activity significantly compared with the same period of 2019, despite the impression given by most media reports and expert commentaries.

The problem is that these operations are over-exposed and over-focused. In the backdrop of power competition, especially amid the pandemic, in order to show their strength and determination, U.S. forces have given undue prominence to covering and publicizing military activities, giving the media and the public a lot to discuss and imagine. There are some hawks in both countries who take advantage of this and exaggerate the situation. Although most countries including the South China Sea claimants, do not want to see China-U.S. military conflict, some individual countries are indeed rejoicing over the growing competition between China and the United States, which may lead to some opportunity for them to expand. China-U.S. military confrontation or even war in the South China Sea has a huge market.

China and the United States are, of course, preparing for any kind of military conflict and the worst scenarios in the South China Sea; however, there is no indication that the two sides want to resolve their contradictions by using force strategically or operationally — despite the repeated war rhetoric from some senior American officials. In daily military interactions, there are really increasing risks, but in the absence of a subjective desire for conflict, these risks are highly likely to be controlled.

The most important thing for the Chinese and American militaries to prevent is miscalculation, considering the relatively backward or ineffective crisis management mechanisms of the two countries even compared with Soviet-U.S. and then Russia-U.S. military relations.

In addition, we need to let professionals do their work. The China-U.S. military rivalry has been unduly influenced by the media, commentators, and some politicians, which amplifies the intensity of the competition and is likely to lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

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Both Chinese and the U.S. militaries need to remain competitive and professional, keeping politics and public opinion in check. After all, if there were to be war, it would be the front-line commanders and sailors who bear the brunt of it; others would be mere bystanders.

Hu Bo is Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Research and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University. He is also Director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI). His most recent publications include China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era by China Ocean Press (2018) and Chinese Maritime Power in the 21st Century by Routledge (2019).