The Next Flashpoint in Asia: Likely Not Taiwan
China's Claimed Ownership in the South China Sea
Taiwan gets most of the attention on our regular news cycles. The Chinese have ratcheted up the frequency and intensity of their intimidation and power projection efforts around the island, while the U.S. has ratcheted up its own provocative political and rhetorical efforts. Setting aside that I do long-term see Taiwan as a really bright red line for the Chinese government, the bigger opportunity (danger) for short-term hot conflict between China, America, and other countries is likely 1,000-2,000 kilometers away to the southwest in the South China Sea.
Everyone in the region is claiming the South China Sea. China wants it all. The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and others have recognized territorial claims. The U.S. claims freedom of navigation rights throughout the region. Notwithstanding that the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in 2016 that "there was no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control historically over the key waterway," China is expanding and the region is roiling in measures, countermeasures, and an escalating likelihood of an accident exploding into something far worse.
Mischief Reef (www.nytimes.com)
It is no surprise why the region is so popular and why China wants it. First, there are incredible natural resources resting beneath the waves. Second, the South China Sea is the transit body for approximately one-third (1/3) of all global shipping, and much of China's trade witth foreign countries travels through the region. Third, as it has been since the sixteenth century, the Malacca Strait at the west end of the region is the strategic chokepoint for shipping west, east, north, and south. And finally, the Chinese government bristles at the United States being seen as the de facto guardian of these waters and wants to control the long-range access to its coast.
Chinese PLA Vessel (www.nytimes.com)
China has been reclaiming, fortifying, and militarizing several islands and reefs in the region. They have shot water cannons and lasers at and otherwise harassed fishing and military boats of other countries. Recently, the Chinese installed, and the Philippine navy subsequently removed, a 300-meter-long floating barrier to prevent fisherman from accessing historic fishing ground. New York Times reporters traveled on a Philippines fishing boat sailing in disputed waters and reported on the active Chinese response. The Chinese claim that their actions are defensive in nature to protect their own land.
ASEAN countries recently conducted maritime drills in the area of the South China Sea. "Hundreds of troops are participating in the ASEX 01-Natuna exercises,...with five warships from Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore expected to sail from the island of Batam to an area near the Natuna Islands -- facing disputed waters in the South China Sea." These drills themselves came only one week after another annual military exercise, Super Garuda Shield, with Indonesia, the U.S., and newcomers Japan, Australia, Singapore, and the U.K. ended in nearby waters. These all being in response to China's emboldened efforts in the area are unmistakable.
PLA Fighter Jet (Arlinda Dela Torre, Department of Agriculture, via AP)
Airplanes of the People's Liberation Army have come close to U.S. reconnaissance flights in the area.
USS Milius (www.aljazeera.com)
The U.S. regularly sends warships through the region.
Zhou Bo, a retired PLA Colonel and now a senior fellow at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has commented that "'the U.S. should stop or decrease its operations there,' he said. 'But since it is impossible, so the danger will grow. A stronger P.L.A. can only be more resolute in defending China's sovereignty and national Interests.'"
This large area is crawling with different countries' militaries. Each is confident in its own position. The potential for an accidental conflict is not a question of if, but when. As Captain Jean-Luc Picard fictionally (yet truthfully) said after a tense faceoff with a Romulan commander, "brinkmanship is a dangerous game."
Star Trek, The Next Generation (Season 3, Episode 7)