How to Avoid a War in the South China Sea

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Recent months have seen a spike in tensions between China and some of its neighbors, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, over the South China Sea. And while the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands has calmed since last year, the unease remains, as evidenced by Japan’s wary reaction to the presence of Chinese warships in international waters near Okinawa recently. The root cause of these disputes is the disputed sovereignty of islands in the East and South China seas. The possibility of oil and natural gas in the seabed has helped raise the ante, as has China’s rising military power and assertiveness.

A new report from the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy examines the dangers associated with these tensions and finds there is a risk in the region that a small maritime clash, or even an accident, that could lead to a wider conflagration. The report says:

Asia is becoming a fertile environment for dangerous incidents at sea, whether intentional or inadvertent. Each such incident involves risks, however small, of miscalculation and escalation into diplomatic crisis or even armed conflict. In aggregate, these episodes can also add to an accumulation of mistrust and hasten a drift to strategic rivalry.

The authors list more than a dozen clashes over the past decade, and examine how the rise in military activity in the area has not been matched by a corresponding increase in military diplomacy and so-called “confidence building measures” that could ease tension between potential rivals. They note that unlike the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union established a robust set of rules to prevent incidents at sea, China and the U.S. have been unable to reach a similar agreement. The reasons include a disagreement over whether U.S. naval vessels can gather intelligence in China’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles from its shores. That was the root of the March 2009 clash off Hainan Island between Chinese ships and the Impeccable, a US Navy oceanographic ship that was believed to be gathering seafloor data, presumably to help track submarines. The report describes Chinese concerns that reaching such an agreement with the U.S. would be a seen domestically as a sign of international weakness.

Authors Rory Medcalf and Raoul Heinrichs list a set of measures that all sides could take to reduce the risk of conflict over an incident at sea. They end on the worrying notion that it may take a crisis before all sides agree that serious steps need to be taken to reduce tensions:

Would it ever be worth chancing a brink-of-war crisis as a gateway to peace? The sane answer is no, but asking this question at all may be academic. If Indo-Pacific strategic dynamics maintain their present course, such a moment may one day be thrust upon the region in any case.