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Op-Ed: China vs. U.S. in the South China Sea — a very deadly situation

The Chinese have in fact said this means war. Exactly what the U.S. intends to do isn’t at all clear. Even Google News search now has a search for South China Sea war. Possible options include a blockade, preventing supplies from reaching the islands. China has reacted strongly, and unambiguously, but the new administration hasn’t spelled out its plans.
The basics
The islands situation creates military and political issues of a rather thankless degree of complexity. The rationales for each type of issue are obscure, to say the least. The related trade issues are so well known I haven’t covered them here.
The political situation
China’s original motive, according to Chinese statements, was to claim historical Chinese territory in the South China Sea. These claims are disputed, not least by Vietnam and other nations. The tensions are real enough, and have been ongoing since the 1970s. Previous disputes have included firefights with Vietnamese navy units which killed 50 Vietnamese. The Chinese also botched an actual invasion of Vietnam during this period. Both sides took heavy losses, and mutual ill-feeling remains.
In territorial terms, the South China Sea islands take up a huge area. The claim of sovereignty makes the region uneasy, to put it mildly. This area is also south of Taiwan, another major sovereignty issue for China. It’s not hard to see why China is positioning itself in this way, if Taiwan is taken in to account as a working factor.
Politically, it’s a grenade with the pin pulled out. Anything could detonate a regional conflict. Add the U.S. to the mix, and it’s a global problem of no minor weight and size.
The Trump administration’s relationship with China is hardly idyllic. Exchanges of verbiage between the two parties have been blunt at best. It’s a very highly charged situation, which could turn in to actual combat pretty easily. Add to this a likely trade war, and you have a mutual meltdown scenario of epic proportions. China has reiterated its position recently.
The military situation
Military considerations in this environment are potentially very complex with real possibilities of major escalations. Who’s prepared to do what isn’t clear, either. What’s not in doubt is that any push by one side will result in the other side pushing back, possibly very hard. The Chinese will not ignore U.S. actions, and can respond effectively to any small scale local military situation.
From a purely local theatre of war perspective:
The islands are situated in a tactically suicidal position. They wouldn’t even be a snack for an American carrier group. The sort of carrier force which attacked Iraq could take out all the islands and then have breakfast.
The Chinese navy has been significantly upgraded and modernized. It’s second only to the Japanese navy in hitting power, and that’s mainly because the Japanese navy is highly advanced technologically. That said, it’s still a largely regionally focused force. As an instrument for projecting national power, it’s not up to the high levels of demand of extended combat against a major power. It lacks depth to take significant losses and sufficient front line capacity.
Chinese air cover, aside from local units, is too far away. One or two carriers simply cannot do the job of fighting a major American force. The Chinese Sukhois are powerful, respectable planes, with real combat punch, but there’s not that many of them. You can only fit so many on an island, too. In a contest with a carrier group, they’d be at a serious disadvantage.
(Less dramatic, but relevant – These front line fighters are also pretty high maintenance in any combat environment, and may not be able to sustain combat for long periods. Even if not destroyed on the ground, it’s a tough task for the Chinese air force in any configuration.)
China’s submarines, and related anti-shipping missiles, are a less obvious, but possible additional level in any conflict, and they are quite dangerous. U.S. forces include a virtual encyclopedia of anti-sub capabilities, close defence systems, and other counters. It’s not a battle winning combination for the Chinese. (Not to underestimate the Chinese anti-shipping capability; the likely scenario is that U.S. forces would take some damage from these systems.)
Unknown factors
It’s unlikely the Chinese military wouldn’t have at least some contingency plans for managing an actual confrontation with the U.S. The modern Chinese military isn’t the same creature as the ultra-gung-ho but obsolescent mindset factory of the old PLA command. Any unknown factors could be highly destructive. Options may include cyber, surprise, and other forms of attack, pre-emptively or otherwise.
The Russian factor
Russia’s position in any conflict is interesting, and potentially critical. If Russia sides with China, the Chinese have access to a credible source of supply and support for an extended fight. If Russia sides with the U.S., the Chinese will never forgive it. The Russian-Chinese relationship is a very high value partnership for both countries, so any departure from the script will be a source of further tensions.
Siding with China, however, would instantly derail the apparent thaw in relations between Russia and the U.S. That wouldn’t help Russia. A neutral stance is more likely in this environment, but can’t be assumed. Nor can the US assume that Russia wouldn’t continue to uphold any military or other arrangements with China.
Situation assessment
The Chinese will fight, and fight hard, in any confrontation. They’ve made a major national commitment to these islands, and backing down isn’t an option. They may not win, but they can do major damage, including on the U.S. mainland with special forces or cadres in the U.S. The resulting escalation of hostilities, even if the matter doesn’t turn in to an all-out war, means tensions and combat are likely on multiple levels. The risk to the US should not be underrated in terms of size and scope.
To put it politely – Nobody’s in Kansas any more if this thing blows up. The region is not at all happy about the possibilities. Nobody wants to take sides between the U.S. and China, despite local situations. It’s asking for trouble with one super power or the other, and nobody appreciates being put in that position. A few lousy rocks in the sea shouldn’t be the basis of a war which can only achieve very little, with possibly catastrophic global ramifications.

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Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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