Roughly 15 years ago, a Chinese fighter jet pilot was killed when he collided with an American spy plane over the South China Sea. The episode marked the start of tensions between Beijing and Washington over China’s claim to the strategic waterway. So in May, when two Chinese warplanes nearly crashed into an American spy plane over the same area, many in China felt a familiar sense of nationalist outrage. “Most Chinese people hope China’s fighter jets will shoot down the next spy plane,” wrote the Global Times, China’s official nationalist mouthpiece.
Though little talked about in the West, many Chinese officials have long felt that war between Washington and Beijing is inevitable. A rising power, the thinking goes, will always challenge a dominant one. Of course, some analysts dismiss this idea; the costs of such a conflict would be too high, and the U.S., which is far stronger militarily, would almost certainly win. Yet history is riddled with wars that appeared to make no sense.
On one level, the dispute is about territory. Beijing insists that nearly the entire sea—from its islands, reefs and submerged rocks to its fish and underwater energy reserves—historically belongs to China. The U.S., however, regards the South China Sea as international waters—at least until rival claims by several neighboring countries can be resolved. Until then, Washington contends, only the U.S Navy can be trusted to ensure freedom of navigation in those waters, which include some of the world’s most important shipping lanes.
The larger conflict, however, revolves around China’s emergence as a major regional power and America’s insistence on policing the Pacific. It also involves the system of international rules and institutions that Washington and its allies crafted after World War II. Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly complained this system favors America and prevents Beijing from taking its rightful place as the dominant power in Asia. And at a time when China’s economy is slowing, Xi is under increased pressure at home to find other ways to demonstrate China’s advances under his leadership. A clear reassertion of Beijing’s control over the South China Sea after more than a century of foreign domination would do just that. Failure to do so, however, analysts say, could threaten Xi’s grip on power.
China says its claim to the South China Sea dates back thousands of years. But historians date the modern dispute back to about 130 years ago, when various European countries took over the waterway. Over the next century, the sea formed part of French Indochina, then Japan’s Pacific empire, and after World War II, the U.S. Navy acted as its caretaker. But in the 1970s, oil and gas deposits were discovered under the sea bed, prompting the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan to stake their own claims to the region. Those countries have since seized 45 islands. Since 2012, China has occupied seven shoals and, through land reclamation operations, turned them into man-made islands with landing strips and missile defenses.
“History matters,” says Fu Ying, a former ambassador to Britain and now spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. In recounting China’s litany of foreign invasions, beginning in the 1840s with Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong and ending with Japan’s brutal occupation of China before and during World War II, she notes that the Chinese remain acutely aware of the country’s past humiliation. “The people won’t tolerate it if we lose territory yet again,” says Fu. “We’ve lost enough.”
Wary of an armed conflict, U.S. President Barack Obama has responded by quietly permitting Beijing to operate in the South China Sea while building up military and economic relations with China’s neighbors in hopes of weakening its influence. And despite the administration’s repeated vows to sail continuously through the disputed waters, it has mostly avoided them. “We’ve done a lot sailing in the South China Sea but in areas that aren’t claimed by anybody,” says Bryan Clark, a retired Navy veteran who last served as a special assistant to the chief of naval operations.
China’s neighbors, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have also urged Obama to be more aggressive, and they’ve offered U.S. forces the use of their bases. But there’s a limit to how far they want Washington to go. While they may resent Beijing’s bullying, China is their largest trading partner and a major source of funding for infrastructure projects such as roads, railways and ports. Bilahari Kausikan, a senior Singaporean diplomat, notes that small Southeast Asian countries must navigate a path between China and the United States by constantly playing one against the other, hedging their bets and sometimes deferring to Washington or Beijing. “We see nothing contradictory in pursuing all…[of these] courses of action simultaneously,” he says.
The Obama administration is bracing for trouble this summer when an international court in the Hague rules on the Philippine challenge to China’s claim to the South China Sea. The ruling is expected to go against Beijing, which has declared it won’t accept any decision from the court. China says it’s willing to talk one-on-one with the Philippines, as well as with the other countries with rival claims—a position that would give Beijing a clear advantage over its smaller neighbors. The U.S. wants China to negotiate with these claimants collectively, and Beijing has told Washington to butt out. “Our view is the U.S. is stoking the dispute and using it to bring its forces back the Pacific,” said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin during a meeting with a small group of visiting American and British reporters in May.
For U.S. officials, the big question is how China will react to an unfavorable ruling. Some fear Beijing will step up its land reclamation operations. Others worry it will restrict the air space over the South China Sea and begin intercepting unidentified aircraft—a policy that would force it to confront the U.S.’s spy flights. Or they could do something even more provocative. “The [Chinese] military is urging the leadership to put it in fifth gear, step on the gas and give the finger to the world,” says a U.S. official, asking for anonymity under diplomatic protocol.
Obama has warned Xi that such measures would prompt a substantial American response, including military action. Some regional experts say Beijing may counter an unfavorable ruling with tough rhetoric to mollify people at home, but take no actions before September, when China hosts the G-20 summit.
War between a rising China and a ruling U.S. isn’t inevitable—provided each side is prepared to make painful adjustments. Xi said as much during his visit to the United States last fall. But in a warning to Americans (which could apply to China’s fighter pilots as well), he added: “Should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they could create such traps for themselves.”
Full article: The ‘Inevitable War’ Between the U.S. and China (Newsweek)