The US destroyer approach last week, within 12 nautical miles of Chinese reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, signaled a new phase of US-Chinese relations. With disregard of the Chinese claim of 12 mile buffer for their reclaimed artificial islands, US accomplished two things. First, if the Chinese government had any illusions that the US would acquiesce to their de-facto control of the South China Sea, they are now gone. The second is the signal to the five other nations claiming parts of that same area that the US will not let the Chinese unilaterally change the status of that area.
Strategically, long term, the US moves mean that there is now a much higher likelihood of armed conflict between US and China. The threat of conflict is not imminent, but there is a high probability of it occurring in the next five to seven years. The contributing factors to this possible outcome are as follows. From the Chinese side, the claims in the South China Sea are expressed in terms of righting a historical wrong. There are claims from the Chinese leadership that the South China Sea is historically a Chinese possession. The Chinese passports have had the “nine-dashed line” printed in them, signifying Chinese belief that the whole area belongs to them. While lately, another line of justification for China’s aggressive reclamation activities in the South China Sea is that by not doing so is tantamount to “shaming their ancestors.”
History shows pretty clearly, that when a government uses nationalistic and historical language to justify action there is a high likelihood armed conflict will follow. The examples of both WW I and WW II show how different nations used historic and nationalist argument to justify their aggression. Whether it was Russian support for the historical rights of the Slavic people in the Balkans in 1914 or German desire to redress the wrongs of WW I defeat in 1939, the outcome is the same. War.
In the Chinese case, there are additional contributing factors. China is a country in transition, much like Imperial Russia of 1914. The government is still autocratic, but some of the people are getting the taste of free choice and what it means. The bargain that the communist party deserves to stay in charge, in return for economic success, is coming under pressure. The continued slowdown of the Chinese economy could produce conditions ripe for social unrest. The Chinese anti-corruption campaign is another factor that could create backlash against the central government. Lastly, 2022 is when President Xi is supposed to step down after completing his 10 year term. Will he? That’s another question. After arrest and conviction of previous Politburo members, what’s to stop someone from doing the same to him if he relinquishes power?
All of which means that in five to seven years a number of contributing factors will be coming together with a high potential for volatility in China. To deflect the blame, the government of China has a ready-made historical excuse. Assert its rights in the South China Sea to demonstrate to the Chinese people that the communist party deserves to be in charge.
What can the US do to mitigate that potential armed conflict with China? Unfortunately there is not much we can do to change the Chinese intentions, but there are some steps we could take. First, continue to conduct freedom of navigation patrols to remind the Chinese government that they will not have a free pass in the South China Sea. Second, dramatically reduce US involvement in the Middle East and use the savings provided to recapitalize both Air Force and Navy air power with more capable aircraft. The Army and Marine Corps will also have to change the bulk of their training towards major combat operations and away from COIN. As the Chinese government observes these future changes, there is still a chance that they would not use military action to enforce their claim of the South China Sea. However, the contributing factors previously mentioned could occur in such a way that the only way the communist party could stay in charge is to appeal to the nationalist instincts of the Chinese people. In that case, the Chinese government has a ready-made excuse for war based on perceived need to right a historical wrong.