Tensions mounting in the South China Sea as China’s military power grows – but will there be escalation?

By James Moules


IN THE People’s Republic of China, maps of the sea off the nation’s southern shores feature a nine dotted line – marking out a zone covering a majority of the seascape’s surface.

These seemingly innocuous dashes represent one of the most contentious territorial disputes on the planet.

Despite being a relatively small body of water, the South China Sea is one of the most significant areas for international trade, with as much as one third of the world’s shipping passing through its waters on an annual basis.

It is no wonder, then, that the nations sitting on its shores are scrambling for as much control and influence over the waters as they can.

The countires staking claims include Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and, of course, China.

Image: naturalflow @Flickr

Map of territorial claims in the South China Sea. Image: naturalflow @Flickr

Since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, China has widely been perceived as pursing a more assertive foreign policy – contrasting years of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of “hide and bide.”

President Xi has repeatedly claimed that Taiwan, which has never been a part of the PRC, will be “reunited” with the rest of China – and has refused to rule out military action to achieve this.

Under his rule, China has also been island building on the South China Sea in a move to bolster its military position in the seascape – while in 2016, an international court ruling negated the PRC’s territorial claims in the sea.

With China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, the various conflicting territorial claims and Western freedom of navigation operations in the area, many observers fear that the region end up as the epicentre of a major regional conflict.

Oliver Turner, a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, told Redaction Report that China’s military buildup and foreign policy direction should not be taken lightly.

He said: “There is always a risk of military escalation in any realm of global affairs, and so China’s military activities should be taken seriously.

“China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are by most measures excessive and have been declared illegal. Under Xi Jinping in particular China has chartered a newly provocative and controversial course of foreign policy.”

Dr Turner added that Western foreign policymakers must also take care when approaching the region – and not simply blame China’s presence for any diplomatic crises.

“Western nations cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for escalating tensions and simply blame China as though they were somehow previously absent from the situation,” he said.

“This is a convenient position to take for them and the idea of a ‘China threat’ to western interests is historically recurring, so it can be seamlessly revived.

“But for instance we shouldn’t forget that the US has retained close to 100,000 troops in China’s near neighbourhood for many decades.”

Nations close to China what host US troops include Japan, which houses around 50,000 American service personnel and South Korea, which has more than 25,000.

“If China began basing even a limited number of its own troops in Guatemala or Cuba, would it not immediately be declared aggressive provocation by the United States and its partners?” Dr Turner added.

“So self-reflection is necessary, and the responsibility for de-escalating tensions lies on both sides.”

The People’s Liberation Army (China’s armed forces) currently boasts more than 2 million active personnel – the most of any country in the world. According to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimate, China spent $252 billion on its military in 2020, making it the world’s second largest military spender in the worldm second only to the United States ($778 billion) and considerably ahead of third placed India ($72.9 billion).

But Jonathan Sullivan, Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the  University of Nottingham, told Redaction Report that China’s immediate foreign policy goal will be to secure regional hegemony in South East Asia – rather than asserting a global military presence.

He said: “China’s military modernisation and its preparedness for a number of different scenarios and theatres is for real. They’ve made huge gains quickly. They’re still well behind the US on every metric, but China’s goals are not, for example, force projection on an intercontinental scale.

“They want to be in a position of invulnerability when it comes to their borders, they want to be in position to secure the South China Sea, and retake Taiwan. In time they want to be able to project power beyond the first island chain and have dominance over the West Pacific.

“They’re on course but some way from that, not least because it rubs against US strategic interests, which they’re not going to give up. They are pursuing these objectives with increasing speed and intensity.

“Whether that fits the definition of assertiveness us open to debate. But objectively speaking, china is more active, more determined and more confident in pursuit of its objectives.”

He added that, while military escalation between China and the United States is a possibility, it remains unlikely at the present time.

“While popular nationalism has hardened public opinion and shifted power to hawks in the regime, a militarised conflict is not in China’s interests, let alone a major conflict involving the US.

“That said, the regime is bound by its red lines. Escalation is thus not unimaginable given a confluence of events. It is not likely in my opinion. More likely is an accident or miscalculation that might then spiral into conflict.” 

China’s expansion of military capabilities is not limited to number of personnel and extent of spending.

In 2012, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier – the Liaoning – joining the small corps of nations to possess such vessels. The Liaoning is a rebuilt Soviet warship, and since its commissioning China has constructed its own ‘home grown’ carrier the Shandong.

China is also a nuclear weapons state, and a 2021 report from the Federation of American Scientists suggested that the PRC is building a new nuclear weapons silo field in its western Xinjiang province.

But in spite of the nation’s growing military might, Dr Turner told Redaction Report that the likelihood of China launching direct force against passing vessels of any flag to enforce its claims remains low.

“Again, I would suggest that this is always possible but – currently at least – it seems unlikely,” he said.

“China’s leaders are acutely aware that its phenomenal economic rise of the past 40 to 50 years has been enabled in large part by regional stability and stable relations with other parts of the world, notably the developed West.

“China is already facing heightening international pressure over issues like its treatment of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang, a seeming lack of transparency over the outbreak of Covid-19, and matters related to data and technology.

“If China were to fire upon the vessel of another nation it would face enormous criticism and a probably escalation of tensions, including sanctions and other punitive measures.

“Aircraft carriers are symbolically important for matters of prestige, but their strategic value, especially in local conflicts, is questionable.

“They’re vulnerable targets and China has an enormous array of short and medium-range capabilities which would likely be more effective against those it considered enemies.”


Featured Image: Pixabay

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