Conflict in a Crowded Sea: Risks of Escalation in the South China Sea

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Conflict in a Crowded Sea: Risks of Escalation in the South China Sea

The South China Sea is a crowded region with a substantial level of military capabilities already present. The risks of escalation are real.

Conflict in a Crowded Sea: Risks of Escalation in the South China Sea
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since the Russian-Ukraine War began in February 2022, speculation about the possibility of China attacking Taiwan has been rife. Several U.S. and Taiwanese officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, have voiced concerns about China’s enhanced military capabilities and the possibility of China invading Taiwan as early as 2025 or 2027. 

However, while the world’s attention remains fixated on the Taiwan Strait, concurrent developments in the South China Sea indicate that the possibility of the sea becoming a flashpoint should not be ignored. 

Wargame exercises undertaken by the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S.-based think tank, concluded that the cost of war across the Taiwan Strait will be high for all sides. Accounting for the possibility of the United States and its allies like Japan and Australia getting involved in such a conflict as well, the study concludes that the economic cost for Beijing is going to be considerable. This alone is going to be a significant factor influencing China’s decision making when it comes to Taiwan. 

The dynamics at play in the South China Sea are different from the Taiwan Strait. Unlike the Taiwan Strait, a conflict in the South China Sea may not require the invasion of the sovereign land territory of a rival claimant state. The source of the conflict is competing territorial claims made at sea, which are contested and not recognized by other littoral states in the region.

Confrontations and skirmishes in the South China Sea are not new. In 1988, the Chinese navy sank three Vietnamese vessels on Johnson Reef in the Spratly islands and Chinese navy ships faced off against a Philippine navy gunboat in the Spratly Islands in 1996. In 2011, a series of skirmishes took place after Manila protested against Chinese naval incursions in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the Philippines, forcing a Philippine survey ship to leave the area around Reed Bank. This was followed by a two-month standoff between Chinese vessels and a Philippine warship at Scarborough Shoal in spring 2012. 

These confrontations have intensified since Xi Jinping took office in late 2012, and China’s foreign policy took a more assertive turn. In 2014, Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard vessels collided after China tried to set up an oil rig in contested waters near the Paracel Islands. A further dispute took place between China and Vietnam in 2019 when China blocked Vietnamese support vessels from accessing a drilling platform in Vietnam’s sovereign waters. China has also undertaken similar actions that have prevented Malaysia from accessing its oil rigs in the South China Sea. There is an existing pattern of skirmishes and confrontations in the region, and based on these past experiences, a bigger escalation in the future cannot be discounted.

The militarization of the South China Sea has also intensified since 2012. Not only has China built artificial islands in the South China Sea, but it has also embarked on extensive militarization of these islands. Since 2014, China has been militarizing the Paracel Islands, where it deployed surface-to-air missiles and stationed J-11 fighter aircraft. A Chinese bomber aircraft landed on the Paracels for the first time in 2018. A similar militarization of the Spratly Islands has continued at pace. In 2022, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command stated that China had fully militarized at least three of its artificial islands in the Spratly Island chain, noting the presence of fighter aircrafts as well as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems. Chinese maritime militia vessels are also increasingly active in the South China Sea. 

Apart from China, other actors have also showcased their military capabilities in the South China Sea. Indonesian naval ships closely shadow Chinese coast guard vessels when they enter Indonesia’s EEZ. The U.S. Seventh Fleet operates in the South China Sea and frequently conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). The number of U.S. FONOP exercises increased considerably during the Trump administration and this has continued under President Joe Biden. In 2019, for instance, the United States carried out FONOP exercises at least nine times in the South China Sea, sailing within 12 nautical miles of islands that are either claimed or occupied by China. As one analyst noted, the growing number of FONOP exercises “are increasing the chances the United States will one day stumble into a war.”

Even non-traditional powers such as India, which has historically kept its activities limited to areas such as the Malacca Strait, have joined the U.S. in conducting exercises in the South China Sea. This ever-increasing military presence has increased the likelihood of accidents. In 2018, for instance, U.S. and Chinese destroyers were involved in a near collision. In 2023, a Vietnamese vessel and a Chinese coast guard ship came within 10 meters of each other. The possibility of these close encounters being a catalyst for further escalation cannot be overlooked. The South China Sea is a crowded sea with a substantial level of military capabilities already present. 

Although the United States is actively involved in the South China Sea, its activities primarily center around FONOP exercises. Unlike the littoral states of the South China Sea, the U.S. does not have a territorial claim. However, despite FONOP exercises by the U.S. and its allies, China has been undeterred and its activities in the region continues. FONOP exercises have not addressed the fishing dispute impacting Filipino fishermen. Vietnam and Malaysia continue to be targeted and harassed as China lays claim to more resources in the region. China continues to deny other sovereign states access to resources in their own territories. In effect, FONOP exercises and the U.S. asserting international law have not resolved the underlying issues. As a result, other claimant countries continue to implement measures that they deem necessary despite China’s threats, further raising the stakes. 

Past experiences, extensive militarization, and the limited effect of U.S. efforts to address the underlying problem are crucial factors that may determine the trajectory of future geopolitics in the South China Sea. Indeed, in a crowded sea where every actor has shown a willingness to assert their claims, the current state of military presence and a history of armed confrontations seen so far implies that our collective eyes must not be taken off the ball in the South China Sea and that an escalation to a full-scale conflict remains very much a possibility.