Headed for WWIII? – US-China’s Escalating Clash in the South China Sea

Written by | Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

On 30 September 2018, just one day before China’s National Day, the US guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur entered, without China’s permission, within 12 nautical miles of Nanxun (Gaven) and Chigua (Johnson) Reefs in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands. Both features are under China’s effective administration. A Chinese navy ship conducted an identification and warning process to drive the USS Decatur away. According to information reported in the news, it is the fourth time this year that the US navy carried out such so-called Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations in the South China Sea.


After the incident, both China and the US stated their official positions related to the issue. The statements from China’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs specify the following messages. First, China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters. Second, the US operation was provocative. It violated basic norms governing international relations, threatened China’s sovereignty and security, and disturbed regional peace and stability. Third, China strongly urges the US to immediately stop such provocative activities. Fourth, the Chinese side will take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty and security.


Statements from the US Pacific Fleet clarified the US position over the friction. First, the USS Decatur, a guided-missile destroyer, was conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea for the sake of “uphold(ing) the rights and freedoms of all states under international law”. This operation is one of their routine and regular freedom-of-navigation operations. Second, at the operational level, the Chinese destroyer “approached USS Decatur in an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea”. Third, the US will continue their FON operations in the South China Sea in the future.


At the time this piece was written, Xi and Trump were expected to meet at the G-20 Summit in Argentina (30 November – 1 December 2018) to try to improve China-US relations. Clashes between big powers are detrimental not only to both countries but also to the peace and development of the world. In the meantime, military personnel at the operational level from both countries should be very careful at sea, following the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), to avoid military clashes in the East and South China Seas.


Competition between China and the US exists, even though the US is still the sole superpower in the world and even though China insists that it has no intention of challenging its superpower position and only focuses on its own development. China still lags far behind in either economic or military strength. Whilst back in 2009 open confrontation between China and the US seemed a remote possibility, today we should think twice. Under this tense environment, any accidental, or worse, intentional incident in China’s maritime area may lead to military confrontation. The next question is whether both countries are ready for such an open clash. Can both countries afford to such a result?


‚Are China and the US Heading for Open Confrontation?‘ – Commentary by Li Jianwei and Ramses Amer – Institute for Security and Development Policy.

(The Commentary can be downloaded here)

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