While the biggest conflict currently between the US and China has been the promised trade war, it appears that the trade war may transition into a “cold war” as the US and some NATO countries are prepared to militarily challenge China’s claim to the South China Sea.
The United States and China disagree on ownership of the South China Sea region. Beijing claims that most of the resource-rich sea, which overlaps claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, belongs to China. To reinforce such claims, Beijing quickly built artificial islands and erected military bases on Parcels and Spratly islands.
The area is also a major trading route and more than $5 trillion in shipping trade flows through the region per year.
Last month, the U.S. Navy conducted its “freedom of navigation” patrols near the heavily disputed islands to demonstrate the right to sail through those international waters, which sparked outrage via Beijing.
In a show of solidarity with its NATO ally, the US, and to push back against China's increasing militarization in the South China Sea, France and the United Kingdom will soon send warships in the contested waterway.
French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson made this statement at the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ “Shangri-La Dialogue” in Singapore over the weekend.
In her speech during the plenary session of the defense summit, Parly relayed France's support for a code of conduct in the South China Sea that would be legally binding, comprehensive, effective and consistent with international law.
"We believe negotiations are the way to go. Meanwhile, we should be clear that the fait accompli is not a fait accepted," Parly said.
At least five French naval vessels sailed through the South China Sea last year, according to the French defense minister
The UK will be sending three warships to the South China Sea this year. British helicopters and ships joined the France task force that sailed in the region last year and Germans also boarded the French ships as observers during these operations, Parly added.
France and the UK's commitment comes in support of the United States' plan to ramp up freedom of navigation operations in the region.
"Europeans have started to mobilize more widely in support of this endeavor... I believe we should broaden this effort even further," Parly said.
Without mentioning the South China Sea, Williamson noted that "increasingly aggressive states... infringing regional access, freedoms and security through coercion" are threats to the rules-based order.
"We believe nations should follow agreed rules but this is being ignored by some and what this does is it undermines peace and prosperity of all nations," the British defense minister said.
The US is taking a more assertive approach in the region such as longer patrols, more ships and closer surveillance of Chinese bases. It also includes keeping aircraft carrier task forces in readiness in the area.
The US Secretary of Defense made the more aggressive US approach clear in his speech in Singapore. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that Beijing's policy in the South China Sea "stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes."
"China's militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island," Mattis said. The H-6 bomber aircraft landing on Woody Island are nuclear capable.
In response to the introduction of Chinese nuclear bombers in the disputed area, a U.S. defense official Monday told CNN’s Washington bureau that two nuclear-capable U.S. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew within 20 miles of the heavily contested and militarized Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
The flybys were to be expected when Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned of “consequences” if Beijing continues weaponizing the South China Sea. He also accused China of “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific region, which he specifically made clear that Washington has zero plans on leaving the heavily disputed area.
The Mattis speech elicited an angry Chinese response during the military defense summit in Singapore, where Lieutenant General He Lei told reporters, “Any irresponsible comments from other countries cannot be accepted.”
What Might Happen?
The United States and China appear to be headed for a military collision if nothing changes.
But there is a careful balance of responses between the two nations. Last week, the Pentagon increased its rhetoric about China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, even as the Trump administration asked Beijing for cooperation on North Korea.
Meanwhile, Beijing reacted to the threat via Pentagon statements. On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.S. accusing China of militarizing the islands was, “like a thief crying, Stop thief!'”
“Why does the U.S. choose to sail every now and then close to Chinese South China Sea islands and reefs? What is the U.S. trying to do?” she said.
At the same time, China is trying to limit the damage of potential American trade restrictions.
All this leads to a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance.
Meanwhile, both China and the US are carefully looking at scenarios if the South China Sea blows up into a military confrontation.
So, who has the advantage?
China is closer to the disputed region, has invested heavily in a new, blue water fleet, and according to the RAND Corp, and the IMF, China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s leading military superpower sometime in the next 2 decades.
But, the Chinese navy is untested, and its only aircraft carrier is of limited ability, unlike the American super carriers. Its navy is also unable to loiter in the disputed area for months like the US fleet.
The Chinese also face a geographical problem. The disputed region is well south of China and between Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines - all more closely allied with the US. In the conflict, the small Chinese bases in the region will be surrounded by hostile nations and armies.
The Chinese military bases on the artificial islands in the region are very small and easy to take out with guided munitions.
When questioned by a journalist about the ability of the Pentagon to “blow apart” China’s artificial islands, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, told reporters, “I would just tell you that the United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands.”
Which brings up another point. The American Navy has an amphibious capability that could actually invade and capture the islands if the US decides to occupy them rather than just destroying the facilities.
The US can also rely upon some NATO countries and their navies.
According to military Hawks in US, China had relied upon the “soft power” approach of Obama to ignore the South China Sea military buildup. They claim that Chinese had assumed that the US wasn’t prepared to take military action but would merely protest to the UN on China’s violation of international laws of the sea.
With Trump as president, China faces a completely different situation. American actions are clearly more aggressive now and China can’t bet that the US will back down now. In addition, the US Navy, US Air Force, and the US Marine Corps have capabilities far in excess of China’s. They also have friendly neighboring countries that will be more than willing to provide bases in the South China Sea.
Although both sides will make threatening sounds, China is likely to play the long game and wait. They are more likely to bet that the next US president will be less confrontational than Trump and will make their move when the chances of US retaliation are much less. Chinese knows that Trump is counting on China to influence NK in the upcoming summit and will downplay any kind of provocative act until its conclusion.