The South China Sea: A Hotspot That Can Trigger World War III – Analysis
By Matija Šerić
The Pacific region is an area of instability and interweaving of geopolitical interests. In that region, the interests of the superpowers China and the United States collide, as well as other nearby Asian countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, the two Koreas, Thailand. Each country looks after its own interests. In Southeast and East Asia, there are two major crisis hotspots: the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. While the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is occasionally heavily exposed in the media, much less is said about the crisis in the South China Sea, which is realistically far more dangerous for world peace.
On March 9 this year, while a Philippine Coast Guard aircraft was flying over the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the pilot received a radio warning to leave “Chinese territory” immediately. The Filipinos replied, “We are calling a Chinese coast guard ship. You are passing within the Philippine territorial sea. Identify yourself and express your intention to prevent misunderstanding”. Such exchanges of threatening verbal messages have become almost everyday in the world’s most disputed coastal region. On March 24, in a closed-door meeting between Philippine diplomats and their Chinese counterparts, the Filipinos made a series of accusations about China’s behavior in the disputed islands over the past year.
Earlier, Philippine President Bongbong Marcos called the Chinese ambassador in Manila to express his strong concern. Namely, the Philippine Coast Guard recorded one incident and released a video, and Beijing retaliated that a Philippine ship entered Chinese territorial waters and that the Chinese Coast Guard used a harmless laser device to track the ship’s movements. Manila’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the action of the Chinese Coast Guard and sent a strong protest to the Chinese Embassy. More than 200 such diplomatic protest notes have been filed by Filipinos over China’s behavior in the disputed waters since last year to date.
The crisis in the waters south of the Chinese mainland represents a potential threat to the whole world and not only to the Pacific Rim. More than any other crisis zone, except for Ukraine, in the South China Sea there is a very close confrontation of the interests of the superpowers, in this case America and China. If a war broke out there, it is very likely that it would not be another proxy war of great powers (like the Syrian war), but it would be a war of one superpower against another. If a war were to break out over territorial disputes in Southeast Asian waters, it would be a war that could escalate into World War III with all its devastating consequences. Year after year, the crisis in the sea south of the Chinese mainland is heating up more and more.
The significance of the South China Sea
What is it all about? The South China Sea is an integral and marginal part of the Pacific Ocean. It is bounded by the space from Singapore and the Malay Strait to the Taiwan Strait – south of mainland China, east of Vietnam and Cambodia, west of the Philippines and east of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, north of Borneo. Includes the Gulf of Tonkin and the Gulf of Thailand. It covers an area of about 3.5 million square kilometers. In the southern part of the sea, the depth is on average about 300 m, and in the north from 2,000 to 4,000 m. The deepest point is 5,560 m. The largest island is Hainan, which is under Chinese jurisdiction and is also the largest in surface area (35 thousand square km) and the most populated (10 million inhabitants) Chinese island. The sea coasts are indented and the Menam, Mekong, Song Hong and Zhu Jiang rivers flow into the South China Sea. Important maritime routes connecting the Middle East with South Asian, East Asian and Australian ports pass through the sea. The Singapore Strait is the main intersection of maritime routes.
In the disputed sea there are a number of islands, groups of islands and reefs that are the subject of fierce disputes and claims by the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The biggest disputes are over the Spratly, Paracel and Pratas islands, as well as the Scarborough reef, but also about other reefs, islets and border lines at sea. In addition to their important geostrategic position, the disputed waters are rich in oil and gas. Namely, it has been estimated that there are about 17 billion barrels of oil in the South China Sea (Kuwait has 13 billion) and between 190 and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
It goes without saying that the disputed waters are rich in fish, which are important for the nutrition of hundreds of millions of Southeast Asians. When all this is known, then it is quite logical that a dozen neighboring countries are competing for the control of this valuable sea area. The USA has sided with its Asian allies and protects their interests as well as its own through demands for free navigation and free trade. According to the US administration, the conflict in the South China Sea occurred in 2014 due to China’s aggressive policy in the area. However, the reality is much more complex than such an easy assessment.
The issue of the South China Sea has been open since the end of World War II. China has many reasons for claiming that over 80% of the sea territory belongs to it. One of them is the very name of the sea that bears the name “Chinese”. China considers itself to be the first country to discover the disputed sea and islands two thousand years ago. In addition, Chinese politicians claim that their country was the first country to send fishermen to hunt and trade on these islands 700 years ago. Also, Beijing believes that it was the first to establish modern jurisdiction over the disputed islands at the beginning of the 20th century. According to the Allied Cairo Declaration of 1943 signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek, the islands in the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel Islands had to be returned to China by Japan.
The real race for the sea, sea lanes and islands began in the 1970s, when each individual country began to claim that it had exclusive rights to an island, zone or reef. In 1994, China occupied the Mischief Reef located about 400 km from the Philippine coast. The seizure comes amid a race for energy resources in the Spratlys, where China has been absent as other countries launch their oil exploration businesses. Control over the Spratly and Paracel Islands did not change significantly from the 1990s to the 2000s. The People’s Republic of China controls the Paracel Islands completely. In the Spratly Islands, Vietnam controls most of the islands, 29 in total, while the Philippines controls eight islands, Malaysia five, PR China five, and Taiwan one.
However, since 2011, tensions have started to rise again. In February of that year, the Chinese frigate Donguan fired three shots at Philippine fishing boats near Jackson Atoll. In May, the Vietnamese oil and gas exploration vessel Binh Minh 02 collided with three Chinese naval patrol vessels some 600 km south of Hainan. S
omewhere from 2012/13 furthermore, Beijing began to rapidly militarize the islands. In April of that year, the PRC occupied Scarborough Reef in response to actions by the Philippine Navy to stop Chinese fishing boats in the area, and this was just the beginning of China’s expansion. Satellite images reveal China’s efforts to conquer territory in the South China Sea by physically increasing the size of islands but also creating new islands. Along with sand-filling, China has built ports, military installations and airstrips for take-offs and landings – particularly in the Spratly Islands. Airstrips, military facilities and installations on artificial islands will enable China to conduct offensive military operations in the near future. Beijing has warned its neighbors not to conduct oil and gas exploration or China will react.
Between 2014 and 2016, Beijing built more new island land than any other nation in history. Since 2016, the Chinese have located advanced military equipment on some islands, which other rivals have not done. However, other states did not remain inactive either. Thus, in February 2012, Taiwan began the construction of an antenna tower and runway on Taiping Island. On the Vietnamese-controlled islands of Sand Cay and West Reef, upgrading and land reclamation projects also began at this time. In contrast to the Chinese projects, Vietnam’s island militarization projects are of a defensive nature and therefore had the support of certain parts of the international community, while the majority of the world public condemns Chinese militarization. Experts describe China’s militarization strategy as “cutting salami” and “cutting cabbage”. In fact, it is about the Chinese government using small provocations, none of which represent a “casus belli” in themselves, but they cumulatively bring much greater gains in favor of China, which would be difficult to do all at once.
Tensions continue to rise
In September 2018, a South Korean destroyer entered what China considered its territorial waters. A South Korean government official said the destroyer had taken shelter from the typhoon and was not contesting anyone’s maritime rights, but declined to comment on whether Seoul believed the disputed waters belonged to China. A spokesman for China’s defense ministry said the ship violated Chinese law by entering its 12-nautical-mile territorial sea around the Paracel Islands without seeking permission, but also said Beijing accepted South Korea’s explanation. In December 2020, China claimed that the US guided-missile destroyer John S McCain was “driven out” after it “entered” Chinese territorial waters near the Spratly Islands. However, this allegation was denied by the US Navy.
In March 2021, 220 Chinese fishing boats were seen around Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, a reef that the Philippines considers part of its exclusive economic zone. Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana accused China of a “provocative action to militarize the area”. These are just some of the more significant incidents, while smaller incidents occur on a daily basis. In July 2016, the arbitral tribunal established under Annex VII. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled against the maritime claims of the People’s Republic of China in the case of Philippines vs. China. However, the court did not rule on the ownership of the islands or on the demarcation at sea. Both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan have declared that they do not recognize the court and have insisted that disputes be resolved through bilateral negotiations with other interested parties.
US involvement in disputes
In January 2022, the State Department characterized China’s claims in the South China Sea as “illegal”. In the last few years, the Americans have significantly strengthened their military presence in the region. In May 2015, an American P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft flew over islands and reefs where the Chinese were dredging. Shortly thereafter, the Americans publicly announced that they would conduct freedom of navigation operations near the Spratlys.
The aforementioned maneuvers were not enough for the Americans, so they sent additional strategic weapons: the B52 bomber and the USS John Stennis aircraft carrier with the aim of carrying out reconnaissance missions in the Western Pacific region to support their Philippine, Vietnamese, Malaysian and other allies. China responded by deploying surface-to-air missile systems, radars and aircraft on Woody Island, which is the largest island in the Paracel group of islands. Essentially since 2015, the US and other Western countries such as the UK and France have been defying China by conducting freedom of navigation operations in the region.
Thus, there is a direct conflict of interests between the great powers of China and America in a politically sensitive area. Admittedly, China is a power on the rise and America is on the decline. China is winning big in trade and sea navigation. China sees the disputed sea as its zone of interest, but so does America. Because of this, there is a conflict of interest. Chinese officials have repeatedly said they are ready to agree on spheres of influence in the Pacific. The Chinese would like to include the western Pacific under their zone of interest and leave the eastern to the Americans. This does not go easily because, in addition to the fact that America is not in favor of it, neither are China’s neighbors such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Officials from the Pentagon say that they exercise freedom of navigation, but if that is really the case, then freedom of navigation can be exercised in a correct and discreet manner and not in the style of Hollywood blockbusters. Today, there are hundreds of islands in the world over which the government is questionable. From the Malvinas to the Kuril Islands. The US Navy was not sent to those areas to propagate freedom of navigation but was sent to the South China Sea. However, it should be recognized that the US Navy navigates the world’s seas in the name of freedom of navigation, but it does so in a discreet and secretive manner, while in this case it is diametrically opposed. Along with freedom of navigation, Pentagon officials call for freedom of trade and trade routes, but there is no problem there. Maritime trade flows in the South China Sea are open and about 50% of the world’s oil trade and over one third of the world’s maritime trade ($3.37 trillion) pass through them annually. China has done nothing to prevent or hinder either process. It would be irrational if it were, because 80% of China’s energy imports and 39.5% of China’s total trade in goods pass through the disputed sea.
US-Chinese conflict in China’s backyard
Until recently, the US was able to impose its will on almost all parts of the world due to its political and military supremacy. Americans lost the will and desire for compromises because they didn’t need them. But failures after the Arab Spring put the USA in a situation where new strong powers, Russia and China, successfully opposed it. America’s unipolar world is slowly collapsing as other powers become powerful. In Asia, China is leading the way, but India is also progressing more and more.
It is significant that the entire American-Chinese conflict is happening in China’s “backyard” or neighborhood, and there China has a solid argument to oppose America, which wants to isolate China with the help of intermediaries (Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam). America wants to put China on the defensive. If it succeeded in this, China’s geopolitical and geoeconomic influence would not expand as it is currently the case. China has great potential, and in ten years it could be equal to, and in some aspects even stronger than, the USA in terms of its economic, political and other power. US access to the South China Sea is through China’s neighbors, which they use as intermediaries. In Asia, there is no NATO as an instrument that Washington could use, but that is why the American establishment acts as the protector of small states there. That may be partially true, but Americans look first and foremost at their own interests. They are even allies with communist Vietnam, with whom they fought a bloody war that they eventually lost (it is the only war that the US has ever lost, besides the one in Afghanistan).
China’s neighbors, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, can criticize and attack China to some extent. All of them would prefer that the US lead the battle for the disputed islands and sea area because they cannot directly enter into a more serious conflict with China because China is usually their main trade partner and investor. If there was a stronger direct confrontation, Beijing could close its borders, which would lead to the halting of economic projects in these countries. For example the Vietnamese and Philippine economies would experience a precipitous collapse.
In addition, it is difficult to expect smaller states to launch a military campaign against China because they would very quickly suffer a military collapse. It is all the more clear that if an armed conflict occurs, it could quickly involve the USA. The US military presence in the South China Sea has been really impressive lately. Americans use military, diplomatic and media means to justify their military maneuvers far from their shores in the name of the common good – freedom of navigation and freedom of trade. But the most important is the pressure on China.
Pressing has two goals. In addition to securing American hegemony in that area of the world, they want to provoke the Chinese authorities to make reckless moves. A possible foreign policy embarrassment for Beijing in nearby waters might lead to growing discontent in one-party communist China. Protests, riots and conflicts could break out and be used to overthrow the communist order. Because of its military power, China is invincible by external invasion, so it is understandable that all the foreign policy opponents of China believe that its collapse can unfold through internal politics through some Chinese Gorbachev.
The importance of the crisis in the global context
It is logical to understand the anxiety of the Chinese over the military maneuvers of the US military in the waters close to the Chinese mainland. After all, the Americans would also be angry if, for example, the heavily armed Chinese navy sailed through the Gulf of Mexico. The American military presence in sea waters that belong to China is certainly not aimed at a direct military conflict, but the goal is to put that part of the world under American domination as much as possible. American planners are probably not planning World War III, but it could happen for some completely banal reason. An uncontrolled firing of rockets from an American battleship or an accidental exchange of fire between two navies and/or air forces would be enough. Since classic proxy wars in the South China Sea are not possible because China does not have its own mediators, the war could quickly turn into a global conflict.
Russia would be the first to support China. Relations between Beijing and Moscow have never been better than today. The level of relations between the two countries could be seen during the recent official visit of Xi Jinping to Moscow. Chinese-Russian cooperation is at an enviable level. China could not achieve military and political growth of its own influence if it were not for Russian support and Russian know-how. Russia would immediately stand by China in case of war with the USA. China would, of course, be supported by North Korea and quite possibly Iran, Pakistan and other countries that are advocates of a multipolar world.
Southeast Asia, like all of Asia, is a geostrategically extremely important region because it is where it is decided whether the US will maintain a unipolar order that is increasingly falling apart, or whether China, India, Russia and other countries will establish a multipolar order that is getting stronger day by day. Under the leadership of President Xi, China managed to regain a large part of its control over the South China Sea and thus take the position of the dominant power in its neighborhood. Due to its strategic successes in the Western Pacific, China is cementing its way to the status of a world player without which not a single important global issue can be resolved.
2 thoughts on “The South China Sea: A Hotspot That Can Trigger World War III – Analysis”
Good article, historically accurate for the most part except you seem to go soft on China’s seizure of Islands and reefs along with the destruction of sensitive corrals and the killing of other sea life. And you didn’t mention their imagery “9 Dash Line that was declared as illegal by the UN! Though you did mention the Law of The Sea dispute.
I live in the Philippines and the Chinese have sunk our fishing boats, chased our fisherfolk almost daily from fishing in our 200 mile EEZ.