Is the South China Sea Worth the Risk of War for Anyone?

The U.S. and China disagree on a long list of issues. That’s not particularly serious. After all, America and Europe hold different views on many topics. However, the territorial controversies in the South China Sea (and seas further north) risk swallowing the entire bilateral relationship.

Contrasting Chinese and American perspectives were on display at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, during which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter challenged Beijing over its island expansion program. China denounced his “absurd” remarks. Privately the possibility of war has emerged as a serious topic in Washington. Both nations should draw back from their increasingly dangerous game of chicken.

Some territorial claims are easy. Often, however, history disdains simplicity. In this case there is a complex mix of control, historical practice, international law, and treaty. In the view of most observers, Beijing’s claims are extravagant. Yet they are not unprecedented.

James Knox Polk became U.S. president in 1845. America had annexed Texas after the latter’s violent secession from Mexico and claimed a new national boundary set well beyond land populated by secessionists. Washington also took an aggressive posture in dealing with Great Britain about setting the U.S.-Canada border in the Pacific Northwest. America won its claims in the first case through conquest and in the second instance through negotiation. Washington should remember that Great Britain’s decision to so accommodate the U.S. yielded long-term peace and future friendship.

As territory most of the islands are worthless rocks. However, they carry with them control over surrounding waters and underlying resources. Perhaps equally important, ownership reflects national ego. Almost as important as exercising sovereignty is denying control to adversaries, some long-hated.

While Washington lays claim to no land, it insists on free transit in surrounding waters. Equally important, with China expanding, many Americans want the U.S. to contain Beijing. One recent study urges Washington to retain military primacy in East Asia and attempt to weaken the PRC. That means backing not only treaty allies but in practice their territorial claims against China.

Indeed, there is increasing commentary among the chattering classes about the importance of making China “pay a price” for its aggressive behavior. The administration is in the curious position of more vigorously advancing claims than the claimants themselves. Washington even has suggested joint patrols with Japanese ships and planes in the South China Sea, where Tokyo has no claims. The U.S. created particular controversy flying over islands claimed by China, courting a corresponding challenge from the latter.

The problem is not asserting American navigational freedoms, but doing so in a way seemingly designed to provoke a response. In 2001 similar military gamesmanship resulted in an aerial collision, which killed a Chinese pilot and brought down an American spy plane, leading to an extended bilateral stand-off.

Since then both nations have become even more concerned over credibility and reputation, which means neither will readily back down when challenged. Beijing does not want to yield to seeming efforts at containment. The U.S. worries about being viewed as a paper tiger around the globe.

Which creates a real danger of an escalating military confrontation. Rather than working to prevent such an eventuality, however, a number of officials, pundits, and analysts appear to view it as almost inevitable.

I recently attended a gathering, which included retired military, former government officials, current policy analysts and journalists, NGO staffers, and non-political professionals. Much of the discussion concerned the challenge posed by the PRC and recent events in the South China Sea. Without a neoconservative at the table there was broad agreement that Beijing had tossed down the gauntlet, so to speak, and had to be confronted.

Most sobering was the acknowledgement that an aggressive reaction could trigger a Chinese response in kind and a confrontation such as a ship collision or plane shoot-down. The consensus was that Washington would have to act immediately and firmly by, for instance, sinking a vessel or destroying a runway. The unspoken presumption was that the confrontation would end there, with Beijing duly chastened. But the obvious question is what if the Chinese made a similar calculation and escalated in turn? Some “damn fool thing” in the Asia-Pacific just might trigger war between the two nations.

Washington enjoys military superiority but must disperse its forces around the globe. More important, the PRC views its interests in nearby waters as important if not vital. In contrast, American domination everywhere, against everyone, is not necessary for America’s defense. Beijing knows that and will risk much more than the U.S. in handling nearby territorial issues.

No amount of scare mongering is likely to change this calculation. If you were to ask Americans to risk a lot to preserve Japan’s independence, they might rise to the challenge. Ask them to war against a rising nuclear power to ensure that the Philippines controls Scarborough Reef, and they are likely to view their leaders as dangerous fools.

The possibility of miscalculation and misjudgment makes it even more important that all participants step back from confrontation. China cares deeply about sovereignty; Beijing’s adversaries believe the U.S. has their back; Washington would not tolerate an attack on its forces. No one wants to look weak. The fuse to war may be long, but no one should risk lighting it.

All parties should look for creative solutions to the plethora of territorial disputes. Countries could set aside deciding on sovereignty while jointly developing resources. Neighbors could share sovereignty and resources. Beijing could pledge to maintain navigational freedoms irrespective of the islands’ ultimate disposition.

Sovereignty over territory in the western Pacific is important, but not worth war. Yet a dangerous dynamic appears to have taken hold. The PRC believes the islands are Beijing’s by right and can be acquired by assertion. The U.S. believes that the territories will end up China’s by conquest unless Washington actively blocks Beijing’s claims. Instead of sleepwalking into a shooting war while assuming the other party will bend, both America and China should renew their determination to defuse territorial controversies peacefully.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.