China and United States on a war footing in the South China Sea

Tensions between China and the United States in the South China Sea have worsened in the past few months and continue to deteriorate.

On Aug. 22, the Pentagon condemned China for instigating a “hair-raising” midair encounter with a U.S. military aircraft, stating that a PLA fighter jet made several threatening passes during an intercept over the South China Sea.

According to Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, Washington has filed an official complaint with Beijing about the near miss between a Chinese J-11 fighter jet and a U.S. Navy Poseidon P-8 patrol aircraft, 135 miles east of China’s Hainan Island.

Kirby told the press that the Chinese fighter jet brought one of its wingtips within 20 feet of the Poseidon, performed a “barrel roll” at close range and also flashed past the nose of the U.S. aircraft at a 90-degree angle with its underside exposed, apparently “to make a point of showing its weapons.”

“The risky incident,” Craig Whitlock of Washington Post reports, “was the latest in a series of near misses between Chinese and American ships and aircraft as both countries have sought to assert their military might in the East China and South China Seas. Defense officials said this encounter was particularly dangerous, calling it the most reckless Chinese intercept since April 2001, when a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft and triggered an international furor.”

“It is no understatement that what happens here matters not just to this region and to the U.S. but it matters to everybody in the world,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Asian leaders at the recently concluded ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar. “All of us are seeing an increased pattern of aggressive behavior and provocative actions in the South China Sea,” warned Philippine Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario, “seriously threatening the peace, security, and stability in the region.”

Beijing, however, is not budging from its stance – China claims more than 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea, which extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by various area nations, including Malaysia and Philippines.

“Beijing’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea,” writes Billy Tea at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “is part of a grand geo-strategic rationale rooted in realist policy, a strategy that is far removed from China’s past non-interventionist policy. Supported by Beijing’s efforts to improve military capabilities, the plan is viewed as a ‘core interest’ of China’s sovereignty.”

So what is China’s grand strategy for the South China Sea? According to Billy Tea, “Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s strategic policies of ‘bu chu tou’ and ‘tao guang yang hui’ – literally translating to ‘don’t stick your head out’ and ‘hide brightness, nourish obscurity’ – are still relevant but at the same time shifting towards a more assertive posture. China no longer fully ‘hides in obscurity’ about its capabilities and is increasingly willing to flex its military strength.”

“China,” noted Billy Tea, “has demonstrated its willingness to confront any rival claimant in the South China Sea and continues apace on its long-term plan to eventually assert dominance over the maritime area. In March, China revealed its 2014-2015 budget, with $132 billion allocated to military expenditures, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. China’s military development will not be solely aimed at asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea but will also be used to displace U.S. influence in the Western Pacific.”

And “through the state media and in private discussions,” writes Peter Lee of Asia Times,

“China has stated repeatedly and unambiguously that it does not allow the United States any legitimate role to define or enforce maritime policy in the South China Sea. It will take a war for China to acknowledge U.S. dominion over the South China Sea. And that is a war, in my opinion – and I suspect, in China’s opinion – the United States is not prepared to fight.”

As China is preparing to unilaterally shape the future of the world’s most important waterway, it has put the credibility of President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” – a strategy based on the “U.S. interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” – to the test. The August China-U.S. near miss in the South China Sea is just a sign of things to come.

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.