Policy expert Michael Auslin warns that an “accident” in the South China Sea could spark a Sino-U.S. war and that conflict between the two superpowers is more likely than at any point in the last 20 years.
In a piece for the Commentator, Auslin, a former Associate Professor of history at Yale University, explains the “three real-world scenarios” which could lead to a confrontation.
The first is an accidental mid-air collision in a repeat of the 2001 incident when a Chinese fighter and a US Navy surveillance plane collided over Hainan Island, prompting an international dispute.
“The US Navy is reportedly considering sending ships within 12 miles of the manmade islands, thereby entering into what China claims is now sovereign territory,” writes Auslin. “With Chinese naval and maritime patrol vessels in the waters, intimidation or harassment of US ships could lead to a collision, with each side responding in turn.”
“This is what China has done to ships of other nations, and an accident could lead to a stand-off,” he adds.
Once China completes the construction of airstrips on the islands, making it easier for fighter jets to patrol the area, a collision becomes more likely, according to Auslin.
The second scenario which could spark a war involves China forcing a confrontation by closely shadowing US planes in the hope that the Obama administration would back down given its equally pressing problems in the Middle East and with Russia.
“China’s leaders may decide that stopping American incursion into their newly claimed waters early on is the best opportunity to make the risks to Washington seem too high,” writes Auslin.
The third scenario involves China intercepting planes belonging to U.S. allies such as the Philippines. Washington could then legitimately intervene under the justification that it is upholding international law.
“With no de-escalation mechanisms, and deep distrust on both sides, the more capable China becomes in defending its claimed territory, the more risks the US will face in challenging those claims,” concludes Auslin, noting that, “The US and China are now potentially closer to an armed encounter than at any time in the past 20 years.”
Tension between the two superpowers has been building in recent weeks, with The Global Times, a state media outlet owned by the ruling Communist Party, warning yesterday that “war is inevitable” if Washington doesn’t halt its demands that Beijing stop building artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Last week, CNN revealed how China’s Navy has repeatedly issued warnings to U.S. surveillance planes flying over the South China Sea. Beijing is attempting to increase its influence by building a series of man made islands in the region.
Billionaire investor George Soros also recently cautioned that the ruling Communist Party may see fit to rally its population around an external threat in order to head off a societal collapse in the aftermath of an economic implosion.
“There is a real danger that China will align itself with Russia politically and militarily, and then the threat of third world war becomes real,” said Soros.