3 Ways China and America Could go to War in the South China Sea

Robert Farley

Security, Asia

Could this really happen? 

3 Ways China and America Could go to War in the South China Sea

As Denny Roy has argued, China is playing offense in the South China Sea. By establishing facts on the ground (indeed, establishing “ground”), it is creating a situation in which normal U.S. behavior looks like destabilizing intervention. What’s less than clear is that Beijing fully understands the risks of this strategy, or the dangers of pushing the United States Navy on freedom of navigation, one of the long-term core interests of the United States. And given that governments sometimes don’t even understand that they’re playing a dangerous game until they find themselves in the middle of it, a great deal of caution is warranted.

It’s easy to imagine an even more serious confrontation in the SCS.  Another accidental collision would be bad enough, but if a scenario developed similar to that of the downing of KAL 007, with a Chinese fighter jock actually opening fire on an American plane, the situation could get ugly very quickly.  And if an American pilot fired upon a Chinese plane, the reaction of the Chinese public could become too much for Beijing to reasonably handle.

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Neither China nor the United States want war, at least not in the near future.  China’s military buildup notwithstanding, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its components are not ready to fight the United States.  The U.S., for its part, would surely prefer to avoid the chaos and uncertainty that any military conflict with China would create.

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Nevertheless, both China and the United States are making commitments in the South China Sea that each may find difficult to back away from. Over the past two weeks, these commitments have generated a war of words that analysts of the relationship have found troubling.  The key problems focus…

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