Oriana Skylar Mastro is an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In August 2020, she will become a Center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
Tensions between the United States and China have been rising in the South China Sea over the past two months as both countries increase their military operations in the contested waters. These tensions have been further exacerbated by recriminations over the ongoing trade war and the spread of the novel coronavirus. In a recent report, “Military Confrontation in the South China Sea,” I argue that these dynamics point to a worrying trend: the risk of a military clash in the South China Sea involving the United States and China could rise significantly in the next eighteen months.
The two countries have serious conflicting interests that could spark crisis and conflict. Beijing considers the majority of the South China Sea to be an inalienable part of its territory and exercising full sovereignty over this area is a core component of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” For its part, the United States needs these waterways to stay free and open if it is to deter Chinese aggression, live up to its alliance commitments, and prevent Beijing from displacing the United States in the Indo-Pacific.
To date, conflict has largely been avoided because China has used primarily economic and diplomatic coercive measures to expand and consolidate its control over the South China Sea. In recent months, however, China has begun to rely more heavily on military means to aggressively assert China’s claims. In February, there was a report from the Philippines that a Chinese Navy ship pointed its “fire control radar” at a Philippine Navy ship off Commodore Reef in the Spratly Islands, though China denies the claim. In March, China opened two new research stations on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands; these facilities are also equipped with defense silos and military-grade runways. In April, Beijing attempted to strengthen its maritime claims in the South China Sea through the creation of two new municipal districts. Overall, the Chinese military is stepping up its activities—including its patrols—in these waters.
The United States, for its part, has not been idle. U.S. aircraft have carried out thirty-nine flights over waters near China since the start of the year, including flight operations in the South China Sea in mid-April. The U.S. Navy has also ramped up its activity, conducting four freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea since January, compared to eight total in 2019. China continues to complain about U.S. FONOPs and joint exercises in the South China Sea. A few weeks ago, China raised the stakes, categorizing U.S. FONOPs around the Paracel Islands as “illegal trespass” for the first time.
As China’s reliance on military instruments to achieve strategic objectives and the United States’ correspondent military exercises have increased, so too has the risk of a military confrontation. Fortunately, if the United States’ goal is to avoid unnecessary conflict, and minimize the costs if such a scenario does occur, it has a number of options. In the report, I present nine recommendations for ways Washington can signal to Beijing both the capability and willingness to intervene—thus enhancing deterrence—if China does use force to advance its claims. This will require more than just increasing the tempo of military operations in the South China Sea. It will require a whole of government approach—everything from using diplomatic tools, such as designating a special envoy tasked with reaching an agreement among the other claimants about maritime rights, to deploying military tools, like seeking greater operational access in Southeast Asia.
The world’s focus is rightly on managing the COVID-19 pandemic and reducing loss of life. But the challenges of addressing China’s rise have not dissipated—instead, they are increasing—and the United States should focus its attention on potential contingencies in the South China Sea if it is to avoid them.
For more, read the full Contingency Planning Memorandum.