Another naval incident in the South China Sea has the U.S. claiming freedom of navigation and China claiming provocation. Military conflict remains unlikely, but relations between China and the U.S. are fraying beyond just the trade war. The continued economic clash with Washington coupled with a Chinese economic slowdown, policy uncertainty in Washington, and the possibility of provocative actions by Taiwan or Japan could precipitate more serious conflict.
The New Year has not brought about any reduction in tensions between the United States and China — the world’s two largest military and economic powers. They remain locked in a trade war. A legal/political battle has erupted over Canada’s seizing of a senior Huawei executive in response to a legal request from Washington, and Beijing has retaliated by detaining Canadian citizens in China. Finally, three geo-military flashpoints exist, and each has its own dynamic that could lead to planned or inadvertent military clashes. The first and most dangerous of these is Taiwan, the island nation that Beijing is increasingly desperate to bring under its control. The second is China’s continuing militarization of the South China Sea in support of its claim to exclusive sovereignty over an area through which significant international sea traffic flows. The last is the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. Each of these flashpoints has its own dynamics, and each has the potential to become worse in the coming year.
In a recent speech, Chinese President Xi reserved the right to use force to achieve reunification with Taiwan. He indicated that unification must take place under a one-China principle that has been rejected by Taiwanese leaders after seeing evolution of China’s relationship with Hong Kong. In another speech to the uniformed leadership of the Chinese military, President Xi said that China’s armed forces must strengthen their sense of urgency and do everything they can to prepare for battle. In response to these speeches, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen said, “It is impossible for me or, in my view, any responsible politician in Taiwan to accept President Xi Jinping’s recent remarks without betraying the trust and the will of the
people of Taiwan.” Her remarks received widespread support in Taiwan, including from the opposition political party. Taiwan has presidential elections coming up in early 2020, and tensions with Beijing will rise ahead of the polls. Given ongoing tensions with Taiwan’s most significant political and military supporter – the United States – chances for conflict are higher than in the past few years and largely dependent upon Taiwan’s domestic politics.
While Taiwan is the most important issue to China and therefore the most likely to trigger some kind of conflict, Beijing is pushing up against the United States, its treaty allies, and regional states in the East and South China Sea regions as well. In the waters and airspace around both the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea, the risk is greater for clashes that result out of accident or miscalculation. In the South China Sea, the U.S. continues to challenge China’s assertion of sovereignty over the entire international waterway. The Trump administration’s national security strategy emphasizes great power competition with China, and the U.S. has increased the tempo of its “freedom of navigation” challenges in the South China Sea. Another incident such as the 2001 collision of an American EP-3 military surveillance plane with an aggressive Chinese fighter aircraft could lead to escalation. Similarly in the waters around the Senkaku Islands, Chinese and Japanese military and law enforcement vessels and aircraft regularly push at one another’s boundaries. Washington’s military alliance with Japan could quickly pull it into a clash between these two Asian powers.
The chances of escalation to new, potentially military, conflict between China and the United States largely depends on President Xi and the Chinese leadership’s view of whether time is on Beijing’s side in these disputes. If President Xi believes he can wait and achieve his goals even in the face of a crisis, then escalation is unlikely unless Taiwan takes the incredibly provocative step of declaring full independence. On the other hand, ongoing economic clashes with Washington coupled with a Chinese economic slowdown, policy uncertainty in Washington, and provocative actions by Taiwan or Japan, could lead China to believe that it has to act militarily in the near-term.