The US can deploy massive military assets, but is constrained on all fronts when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Photo: AFP / Erwin Jacob V Miciano / Navy Office of Information

War between China and the US is not inevitable. But it is becoming increasingly likely, and the South China Sea bears its seeds.

In their meeting on Monday in Tianjin, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly told US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman that China had three bottom lines: “The United States must not challenge or seek to subvert China’s model of governance; it must not interfere in China’s development; and it must not violate China’s sovereignty or harm its territorial integrity.” The US continues to do all three.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Xie Feng “expressed [China’s] strong dissatisfaction towards the wrong remarks and actions of the US” regarding the origins of Covid-19, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

US President Joe Biden has publicly identified what he considers a long-term existential threat to Americans’ fundamental political beliefs and way of life. He says autocracies like China and Russia are betting that their systems will out-compete democracies in addressing the enormous complex challenges of the 21st century.

He explained that they think democracies, with their unwieldy checks and balances, will not be able to function efficiently and effectively to meet these challenges. In short, they think that they can satisfy their populaces by providing continuity and stability and thus human security rather than Western-style unrestricted individual freedoms and resultant chaos and insecurity.

So the two are on a fundamental collision course driven by competing ideologies and visions of the “international order.” Although it is still possible to compromise and co-exist, neither is inclined to do so.

The “threat” of China now drives US foreign policy. The US is applying “whole of government” pressure on China – instituting sanctions because of what it considers unfair economic practices, theft of intellectual property, cyber hacking, its harsh treatment of minorities in Xinjiang, its political crackdown in Hong Kong and its bullying in the South China Sea.

The US is also cobbling together political and military coalitions of like-minded democracies to contain and constrain China and, most dangerously, stepping up diplomatic and military relations with Taiwan. China is responding in kind. This clash of world visions, driven by dueling ideologies, is now being backed by their respective militaries. Something has to give.

There are three issue clusters where unilateral actions by either side could trigger war: Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea.

The first two are the most dangerous. Both involve issues of sovereignty and China’s arch-enemy Japan.

Japan is tempting fate by approaching China’s red lines, particularly regarding Taiwan. Yasuhide Nakayama, Japan’s state minister for defense, said last month, “We have to protect … Taiwan as a democratic country.”

Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would threaten Japan’s survival, so Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together. Japan has even urged Australia to join it in military exercises aimed at the China threat in the East China Sea.

The latest taunt was the public broadcaster NHK’s use of “Taiwan” in Japanese to announce the entry of the Chinese Taipei delegation in the Olympics opening ceremony.

The US needs to rein things in, and probably will. Precisely because these issues are the most dangerous and the red lines are clear, the antagonists will likely avoid kinetic conflict over them.

This brings us to the South China Sea, where the red lines are more ambiguous – but just as real and dangerous.

During former president Donald Trump’s administration, US-China relations rapidly deteriorated overall, and in particular in the South China Sea. Both countries engaged in belligerent rhetoric and military posturing. Each claimed to be responding to the other and neither wanted to make the first move to de-escalate.

The Biden administration has trumped Trump’s belligerent uncompromising policy in the South China Sea.

The US is building a coalition of like-minded democracies to contain and constrain China, including in Asia – Japan, Australia, India and South Korea – and in Europe– the UK, Germany and France. The maritime focus of this coalition is on a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and in particular “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, which the US disingenuously claims is being threatened by China.

There are other strategic factors in play. The South China Sea is at the center of the US-China strategic contest for regional dominance.

China and the US have converging strategic trajectories. These produce dangerous dynamics

For China, the South China Sea provides relative “sanctuary” for its nuclear-capable submarines based in Yulin on Hainan. These submarines are its insurance against a first strike – something the US, unlike China, has not disavowed.

The US uses intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes to detect, track and if necessary target China’s nuclear submarines. China’s response has been to develop on some of the geographic features it occupies the capability to neutralize US ISR in a time of conflict.

For China, its installations are critical to its defense. But the US is continuing these probes because they give it an overall strategic nuclear advantage. Any US move to diminish China’s defense capabilities significantly would likely be a “red line.” For the US, a corresponding “red line” might well be any serious attempt to disrupt its ISR probes.

There are other probable “red lines.” For the US, this would include blatant violations of commercial freedom of navigation, or an attack on the forces or territory of its ally the Philippines. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that Washington’s mutual defense treaty with Manila covers an attack on Philippine forces in the South China Sea.

 A non-response by the US would destroy its credibility as the “leader” and protector of the “international order” and the region. 

Any attempt by China to occupy and build on the Philippines-claimed Scarborough Shoal is also a probable “red line.” Another might be China’s declaration and enforcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone over a large swath of disputed waters in the South China Sea.

For China, whose body politic has become increasingly nationalistic, any national loss of face and resultant loss of respect for leadership could trigger a response to a crossed “red line.” This might include a US military confrontation that forces a public climb-down by China’s navy.

The current situation is tense. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, which often reflects government views, has warned, “Don’t play with fire off China’s coast … don’t overdo it in the South China Sea.”

But the current US approach is to “meet China’s greater assertiveness with a more assertive use of force of its own.” On the eve of his visit to Southeast Asia, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he intends to emphasize a commitment to freedom of the seas and push back on “unhelpful and unfounded claims” made by China in the South China Sea.

He said he will be “working closely with our partners about how we’re updating and modernizing our capabilities and their own capabilities to work together to tackle some changing forms of aggression and coercion that we’re all seeing, and I’ll be talking with our friends about how we’ll work hand in hand to pursue our new vision of integrated deterrence.”

To China, this is about as “in your face” as you can get. It is bound to respond in like manner. Hold on to your hat.

Mark Valencia is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Huayang Institute for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance.