The Next American Warzone: South China Sea

The Russia/Ukraine conflict bears a resemblance to the current standoff between China and Taiwan which many believe could be the next major conflict bringing the United States into a war with China. This is a logical conclusion due to recent rhetoric from US lawmakers and their trips to Taiwan, as well as unprecedented Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). However, when you compare the two situations, I would argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that if China invaded Taiwan, the United States would not get involved using direct military action. With the Ukraine conflict there was no legal obligation for the United States to send military forces to a non-NATO nation. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 does not guarantee the United States will intervene militarily if China invades Taiwan, although a positive relationship exists with Taiwan. When looking at the distance of Taiwan to China, and the overwhelming force that China could use against Taiwan, and the distance the United States would have to travel to bring in troops from in theater and especially out of theater, that China could very well have won the war before the United States gets there. The United States did not intervene in Ukraine because of how important Ukraine is to Russia, and how far Russia was possibly willing to go to pull Ukraine back into its sphere of influence. Russia has deep cultural and symbolic ties to Ukraine for many reasons, beginning with Catherine the Great and continuing up to the Soviet Union. China has the same cultural and nationalistic ties to Taiwan as China has wanted to pull Taiwan back into its sphere of influence since Taiwan was established in 1949. The United States avoided direct military action in the Ukraine conflict to avoid a confrontation between nuclear powers and that bears a striking resemblance to Taiwan. China has made recognition, or nonrecognition of Taiwan a major part of its foreign policy over the years and has made it clear on the international stage that reunification of Taiwan, will be a huge part of current leader Xi Jinping’s legacy. While it is doubtful that a Taiwan conflict would illicit United States military action, the South China Sea presents different requirements and a greater possibility of United States involvement. The South China Sea will be next conflict where the United States intervenes with its military because of legal obligations to the Philippines, the ability to generate forces comparable to China in the South China Sea, and because China is not emotionally invested in the South China Sea as it is in Taiwan. A major claimant to islands in the South China Sea is the Philippines, which the United States has mutual defense treaty with. This defense treaty has been reaffirmed by President Joe Biden, to include attacks by the Chinese Maritime Milita. The United States is still able to generate more air and naval power to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea than China can as opposed to Taiwan, which is 100 miles off the coast of mainland China where China can mass forces to take the island. Central to Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” and “national rejuvenation” policies, as well as Xi’s legacy, is Taiwan’s reunification with China. Taiwanese reunification is a much more emotional and national political topic for China as compared to the South China Sea. The next area that will see United States intervene in, will not be Taiwan but instead will be the South China Sea. 

The South China Sea has many claimants, most importantly Vietnam, China, and the Philippines. In 1947, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) laid claim to the SCS using what was called the “11 Dash-Line”. Six years later, the “11 Dash-Line” became what is now known as the “9 Dash-Line”, after China removed two of the original 11 lines after giving the Gulf of Tonkin to Vietnam. In recent years, China has added a 10th line to the map, which encompasses Taiwan. This map is used by China to justify their maritime claim to the South China Sea. International courts have ruled against China and their claim to the South China Sea, but that has not stopped China as they attempt to force their sovereignty into the area. After the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, China seized islands in the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea from the South Vietnamese who then fled to the Spratly Islands south of the Paracel Islands. When Vietnam was reunified after the fall of Saigon, the new Vietnamese government claimed the Paracel and Spratlys, while China has had military forces on the Parcels since 1974. Between 1979 and 1988, China and Vietnam had skirmishes over these islands. Looking forward to 1988, China is now pursing a more assertive stance in the Spratlys as well, and the Chinese navy kills 74 Vietnamese soldiers and sinks 3 ships over Johnson Reef. In 1996 Chinese naval vessels and Filipino naval vessels engaged in a military confrontation over Mischief Reef, this marking the first confrontation with the Philippines of which there would be many over the coming years. Why is it that these countries are fighting over this large portion of the sea? The answer to this question is the economic value the South China Sea has. Ranging from its millions of untapped oil and natural gas fields to increasing fishing areas. In 2016, 3.37$ trillion passed through the South China Sea and 40% of the global liquefied natural gas. The South China Sea is also a critical Sea Line of Communication for the United States and her allies for facilitating trade and transiting military forces in the area. This takes the South China Sea to 2014, when China started to reclaim land by physically creating bigger islands and even making artificial islands in the South China Sea. In 2015, Xi Jinping, the president of China, and President Obama held a joint press conference where Xi Jinping clearly stated China’s claim to those islands and stated that China would not purse militarization of the South China Sea Islands. Today in 2022, multiple islands now host military airfields, radars, anti-ship cruise missiles, and surface-to-air missiles, effectively militarizing the South China Sea to enforce its claims.(Grossman) China has a vast military compared to Vietnam and the Philippines and is quite able to enforce its claims without this massive buildup. Which brings us back to the United States and why China is militarizing the South China Sea- for a counter intervention operation against the United States. 

In 1951, the United States and the Philippines signed a Mutual Defense Treaty stating if either of the parties is under armed attack, the other would come to their aid. This treaty is ambiguous as we have seen international incidents between China and the Philippines before with only a modest response from the United States. The ambiguity that is in the defense treaty is an advantage to the United States, as it does not force the United States into a war with China. The United States has become more vocal about China’s claims to the East and South China Seas in the recent years and as mentioned before, has a great economic interest in the South China Sea. So, when does the United States become legally obligated to come to the aid of the Philippines regarding the South China Sea? I would argue that Thitu Island is that trigger for the United States coming to the aid of the Philippines. Thitu Island is the second largest natural occurring island in the Spratlys and is home to over 100 Filipino civilians at any given time. The island also has a military presence on the island and have been constantly harassed by Chinese ships during recent years as upgrades to the island where made. The Philippines have administered Thitu Island since the 1970s, and I would argue that if the China were to attempt to seize the island, then the United States would have to respond. President Joe Biden’s administration clarified that the treaty would obligate the United States to come to the defense of the Philippines even if it was the Chinese Maritime Milita that did the attacks.

The United States is still able to generate more air and naval power to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea than China can as opposed to Taiwan, which is 100 miles off the coast of mainland China where China can mass forces to take the island. The United States only has two bases inside 500 miles of Taiwan. The United States has war gamed the Taiwan scenario multiple times and each time the outcome is grim for the United States. The United States would not be able to generate and maintain Air and Naval Superiority defending an Island with over 23 million civilians right off the coast of China. Now if you take the Taiwan scenario and compare it with the South China Sea scenario, at face value it is an easier problem-set. Considering they are small islands saturated with only military infrastructure, personnel, equipment, and extremely farther way from mainland China, almost 750 miles away just from Hainan Island. United States air power would still need to travel between 1400NM from Okinawa and 1600NM from Darwin. Long-range aviation assets would also be fighting an extremely isolated and small islands in the middle of the South China Sea, and still have travel from far bases like Diego Garcia, Guam, and Hawaii. Naval assets that can launch Tomahawks even if they are pushed out of the South China Sea would still be behind the first island chain as close as 600NM away. The ability to generate and protect long range bombers to conduct strikes on Chinese air defense equipment located in the Spratly Islands, is way more achievable than protecting the entire island of Taiwan. All of this also does not consider other countries in Southeast Asia that would allow United States basing to deny Chinese dominance in the South China Sea. The Philippines, which is a United States ally, has previously allowed United States forces to operate out of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, placing American forces closer to the Spratley Islands. The truth is that the United States can generate the forces needed for a Spratly Island take down faster and easier than what would be required for a total defense of Taiwan.

Central to Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” and “national rejuvenation” policies, as well as Xi’s legacy, is Taiwan’s reunification with China. Taiwanese reunification is a much more emotional and national political topic for China as compared to the South China Sea. When looking at Lithuania and when they allowed Taiwan to open a diplomatic office in Vilnius, China’s response is clear. China will not tolerate, and they put a de facto trade embargo on the country and recalled its ambassadors. China is in fact attempting to use its economic power, to bully other countries into submission. It is because China fundamental believes Taiwan is China and having Taiwan as not part of China is a national embarrassment that China cannot tolerate. President Xi Jinping introduced the “Chinese Dream”, and the rejuvenation of China and reunification of Taiwan is a central part of this plan as this talk preys upon Chinese nationalism and their emotions of reuniting Taiwan to China. This is part of Xi Jinping’s legacy to China, and he has talked about that the Taiwan issue cannot be handed down from generation to generation. Xi Jinping believes that “national rejuvenation” and taking China forward as world power is intertwined with Taiwan. When looking at the South China Sea in comparison, the “nine dash line” for example has not always been a nine-dash line and has changed from eleven to ten in the past, and part of that was just to include Taiwan in that claim. The South China Sea is not linked to anything emotional for the Chinese people or CCP leadership. China has been able to negotiate before with ASEAN (Association for South Eastern Asian Nations) and come up with a code of conduct in 2002 although China obviously has not followed it. ASEAN is as effective as NATO due to U.S. involvement and capability. The Australians have recently awoken to the threat China poses, but everyone in the South Pacific is scrambling to stand up to the red menace. The problem is that China banks on appeasement from weaker nations and any short-term concession results in death-by-a-thousand-cuts in the long-term.

When looking at where the next possible American Warzone could be, it is time the United States turn and look at China a growing power that is attempting to bully its way for more control in the Pacific. I see two scenarios where the United States gets involved kinetically with a war with China, the first being the Taiwan invasion scenario much talked about in the news, and the second option and more dangerous, the South China Sea and a scenario where China seizes an island from an ASEAN county. The legal basis to come to the defense of the Philippines is there in the Mutual Defense Treaty, which has been reaffirmed by this administration unlike the Taiwan scenario, where coming to the aid of Taiwan is not written in law. The United States will have greater success in countering China’s military presence over the Spratly Islands than in a counter intervention scenario with Taiwan. China is extremely invested in reuniting Taiwan, so much so that if the United States were to intervene that it could be viewed as a threat to the Chinese regime and risk further escalation. A conflict within the South China Sea can be seen as a regional conflict about borders. As such a lower risk of escalating beyond the South China Sea leaving room for negotiations after a conflict. The question is now where do we go from here? First, relations with the Philippines need to be repaired. President Duterte leaned more pro-China when elected and attempted to work with China, resulting in China doing very little to support the Philippines. Instead, President Duterte has now leaned back on the United States after initially cancelling the Visiting Forces Agreement between both parties, and has now extended it twice, allowing for American forces to be deployed to the Philippines. May 9th is the upcoming Philippines presidential elections and so far, the leader in polls would be Ferdinand Marcos Jr., someone seen as more pro-China and more willing to acquiesce to China as opposed to Manny Pacquiao, someone more friendly to the United States. The United States needs to make a conceited effort to finish amending ties with the Philippines and put China in a situation where further efforts to bully the South China Sea, will not work against the Philippines with the United States supporting it.

[The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group is underway in the Philippine Sea. Image credit: US Navy]

Mitchell Dunkin is a member of the United States Air National Guard. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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