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Is a major US-China armed clash in South China Sea a looming possibility?

May 26, 2015, 17:33 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila
© Bao Xuelin/Xinua via AP

MOSCOW, May 26. /TASS/. US-China tensions in the South China Sea flared up again of late to draw analysts’ attention to the risk of an armed clash between the two powers. Most Russian experts believe that although a major conflict is hardly possible, local incidents capable of spoiling relations between the two countries for a long time are likely. In their opinion, the situation in the region will remain strained for a long while, because no ground for a compromise is in sight.

Washington has been demanding Beijing should curtail its efforts to build artificial islands and been sending spy planes to the South China Sea area again and again. Last week a plane of the US Navy eight times ignored warnings from Chinese naval ships against flying over one of the islands China is building in a disputed area of the South China Sea. US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Jakarta on Thursday China’s construction work in the disputed reefs was undermining freedom and stability and provoking tensions that might very well lead to a conflict.

China’s Foreign Ministry warned that US spying the area of the reefs and islands was a threat to peace and condemned provocative actions by the United States.

China contends a greater share of the South China Sea. Some of the islands there are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

Security experts in the United States and in Asian countries suspect that when it is through with building seven artificial islands, China may impose restrictions on merchant shipping and flights by aircraft. Also, the oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea surely do play a role, although the deposits’ estimates vary.

"A large-scale military conflict between the United States and China at this stage is very unlikely, but serious incidents may take place to cause a prolonged diplomatic conflict between the two countries," senior research fellow Vasily Kashin, of the Strategies and Technologies Analysis Centre, has told TASS. He recalled that several years ago risky maneuvering resulted in a collision of the two countries’ planes and casualties. The Chinese pilot died and the US one landed with great problems.

"These days the Americans have been staging outspoken provocations against the Chinese, so the risk of local incidents does exist. The United States thinks that a hard line will force the Chinese to pull back, but this is a gross mistake. The Chinese are capable of taking very harsh action, because the South China Sea for them is of special, strategic importance. It is a matter of security. If provocations against the Chinese continue, they will be waiting as long as they deem right to fight back in the end. Relations with the United States may be upset for decades."

Kashin recalled that strategically the South China Sea was one of the most important regions of the world, with very busy shipping. There lies the main route for transporting crude oil from the Middle East. A large share of oil and gas and cargos bound for Asia are delivered across that sea.

It would be wrong to think that hydrocarbons are the root cause of discord in the region.

"For China the South China Sea is of special, strategic importance. It is a matter of security, a matter of naval shipping. Hainan Island is a base for nuclear-powered submarine-carrying missiles. China has spent tens of billions on building its nuclear-powered submarine fleet. Safeguarding its positions in the South China Sea is one of the basic components of China’s foreign policy."

The Americans fear that if China achieves indisputable military superiority in the South China Sea, the rights of foreign fleets in its 200-exclusive economic zone may be restricted. "China, just as a number of other states, argues that in its exclusive economic zone other countries’ military activities (the right to conduct naval exercises) may take place only with permission from the country to which the EEZ belongs. The Americans dismiss that as a violation of the freedom of shipping. China’s stance considerably restricts the US Navy’s freedom of maneuver in the western Pacific."

"For the Americans the stakes are high, indeed," Kashin said. "Here belongs the question of their influence on the ASEAN countries. It is a matter of the United States’ prestige. Washington is determined to assert its leadership. Making concessions is by no means its style. Not the slightest opportunities for a compromise exist at the moment."

Besides, as the analyst remarked, there is no unity among the ASEAN countries. For many of them China is an important economic partner. As for Vietnam, although its relations with China are bad, it is in no hurry to seek US patronage.

For China the South China Sea issue is of fundamental importance, agrees senior research fellow at the Asia and Middle East Centre of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, Ivetta Frolova.

"Beijing believes that the main aim of the United States’ activity in the Asia-Pacific Region is to contain China, so it sees a conflict in the South China Sea as one of the means of exerting pressure on China," Frolova told TASS. In her opinion, a surge in tensions is not ruled out, but the risk of a major conflict is equal to naught.

"There will be no war. The United States and China are so tightly linked economically that they will not go farther than local conflicts," Frolova said.

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