South China Sea More Worrisome Flashpoint than Hong Kong

The Chinese government has decided unilaterally to change the terms of its relationship with Hong Kong with a new security law. Some believe that Beijing is undertaking this move because of opportunity – a world distracted with COVID – and weakness, seeking to divert attention from its handling of the pandemic. It may also believe that the West is divided and therefore unable to stop or effectively punish Beijing.

The same could be true in the South China Sea. The Chinese government has accelerated activities on the artificial islands it has constructed there that provide it with increased actual control and an enhanced legal argument to the formations and to the sea as a whole. These activities have ranged from building fighter aircraft shelters to growing bok choy on the formations. Reports also indicate that Chinese navy, coast guard, and maritime militia vessels have been increasingly challenging fishing and military vessels from states who have claims to portions of the South China Sea. While Hong Kong may be a larger issue with long-term implications for Taiwan, the South China Sea holds the potential for shorter-term clashes that could escalate, militarily.

Western and regional states will continue to challenge China’s moves in Hong Kong. However, those challenges or punishments will be economic and/or political. And China has likely calculated that it can withstand or outlast any punishments. The South China Sea is a different set of issues. While seeming more esoteric – questions of law of the sea and real or artificial islands – the international waterway has a feature that Hong Kong does not: the regular close encounter of military and paramilitary forces of China and a variety of states including the United States. This creates the possibility for military clashes – either intentional or by misperception/accident – that carry with them the chance for escalation. Over the next six to seven months in particular, military interactions – particularly those between Chinese and U.S. forces -- may be more difficult to manage due to the domestic politics in each country.

Military clashes can occur through a mix of actions. China is stepping up its activities on the water and in the air over the South China Sea. It simply has more forces operating and challenging the right of others to be present without its permission. Beijing could also choose to implement an air defense identification zone over the sea, something it has been threatening to do for years. For states in the region who also claim portions of the South China Sea or islands in it as their territory, territorial waters and/or exclusive economic zones, attempts to demonstrate this could lead to clashes.

The United States regular sails and flies U.S. military aircraft and naval vessels through the South China Sea including activities designated as “freedom of navigation” operations that directly challenge Beijing’s claims. The most recent of these was the sailing of the USS Mustin destroyer within twelve nautical miles of the Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands without Chinese permission. As with an incident in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet, flying aggressively and unsafely, struck a U.S. EP-3 spy plane flying in international airspace over the South China Sea, accidents can happen even absent direction from higher authorities. In 2001, it took several months for the new Bush administration and the Chinese government to work out a climbdown. Off ramps to crises will be more difficult to come by in the current environment between Washington and Beijing with the former looking at a looming election and the latter seeking to shore up its domestic credibility and control in the wake of COVID originating on Chinese soil.

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