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US vs. China in South China Sea - tension more likely than full conflict

February 18, 21:29 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila
South China Sea

South China Sea


MOSCOW, February 18. /TASS/. Continuing standoff between the United States and China in the struggle for influence in the South China Sea makes analysts discuss again and again how great the risk of a full-scale conflict between the two countries really is. Russian pundits believe that a major conflict is out of the question, while local incidents, capable of seriously spoiling relations between the two countries are quite possible. Tensions in this region are bound to last for a while, as no grounds for a compromise are in sight.

China lays claim to a large area of the South China Sea. Some of the islands there are contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Washington is demanding Beijing should stop building artificial islands and has repeatedly sent spy planes into the airspace over the South China Sea. The United States last January dispatched a destroyer carrying nuclear weapons to one of the islands of the disputed chain of islands. Beijing then confined itself to a protest. Earlier, such operations were carried out by US military planes, too, on the pretext the freedom of shipping in international waters must be maintained.

US TV channel Fox just recently reported the sudden emergence of a Chinese air defense complex HQ-9 on Woody Island, which is part of the Paracel (Xisha) archipelago. A Pentagon official and a representative of Taiwan confirmed this. Some Western media even said that the situation looked pretty much like the beginning of the Caribbean Crisis of 1962, although nobody expects real war to break out.

"I would not liken the current situation to that of the Caribbean crisis," the head of the Oriental Studies School at the Higher School of Economics, Aleksey Maslov, has told TASS. "China just asserted its military presence by protecting a strip of land, and not mounting an offensive against some other country, say, by deploying weapons aimed at another state, for instance, Japan or Vietnam. But here we can see certain changes in the mode of China’s behavior. Before, it always insisted that such issues may be resolved exclusively by peaceful, political means. That made its stance fundamentally different from that of the US, which repeatedly dispatched its aircraft carriers to the area. Now China wishes to show that it is prepared to defend its economic gains by military means, too. We are witnesses to a new China, which is psychologically prepared to use military force to protect its interests."

"Saying that something like a Caribbean crisis is looming on the horizon would be madness," senior research fellow Vasily Kashin, at the Strategies and Technologies Analysis Center, has told TASS. "The Chinese have redeployed their defense system there. That’s a sure sign of the islands’ militarization, but it does not endanger either shipping routes or the territories of neighboring countries. The arms race in the region has entered into another spiral. This says it all."

"For China the South China Sea is of special, strategic importance. This is a question of security, of military shipping. Hainan Island is a base of nuclear-powered submarines. China has spent tens of millions of dollars on its nuclear submarine fleet. Safeguarding its foothold in the South China Sea is one of the key components of China’s foreign policy," Kashin said.

The Americans fear that if China achieves indisputable military supremacy in the South China Sea, the rights of other foreign fleets in its 200-mile economic zone will be restricted.

Neither party will deliberately trigger an armed conflict, of course, Kashin believes. "But there can be mistakes in judging the opponents’ intentions and misunderstanding of their real capabilities. The situation may get really dangerous at times." He recalled that several years ago dangerous maneuvering resulted in a clash of the two countries’ planes and loss of human life. The Chinese pilot died and the US plane made an emergency landing.

The director of the APEC Studies Center at the presidential academy RANEPA, Natalya Stapran, believes that an open military clash is not in the interests of either the United States or China mostly by virtue of their mutual economic dependence. "At the same time the policy of brinkmanship will most probably last for some time," Stapran told TASS. "First and foremost, because China is obviously trying to assert itself as a new leader on land and at sea, where the United States had been unrivaled until just recently."

For the time being the United States is unable to reconcile itself with the hard fact it will have to agree to the proper redistribution of powers (in conformity with China’s interests) in the field of naval security, if not accept the inevitable loss of its leadership status. "As long as the US leadership tries to interpret the current situation from the standpoint of its belated strategy that implied China’s idleness or relative inactivity, any action by Beijing in this field will be seen in Washington as aggression or threat.

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