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Is the South China Sea the Spark for the Next Global Conflict?

By Morgan Deane:

The South China Sea continues to be a flashpoint for conflict between China and America. But the region is more complicated than American and Chinese friction over freedom of navigation.  There are numerous related problems in the area that should compel us to reassess the situation.  The Chinese seizure of a US submersible drone, American and Philippine friction, and the Vietnamese building an artificial island are the three most recent items that display the growing tension in the region.

Currently, the Philippine defense minister no longer wants US Freedom of Navigation operations to start in their territory, creating the first issue.   Because many islands are disputed near their territory or in what should be their exclusive economic zone, the U.S. performs these operations to reaffirm the importance of international law. In theory, these operations should help the Philippines and other nations in the South China Sea.  These prevent the de facto recognition of this territory as China’s.  If international law is disregarded, it will be a free-for-all in this region where disputes are settled by force. As the biggest military power in the region, this would naturally encourage more assertive action by China. If China aggressively controls this territory they could easily cut off Philippine shipping in the region. Chinese forces could also harass and intimidate fisherman with their coast guard as they have done in the past.

The 2014 agreement between the Philippines and America allowed U.S. forces to pass through the region, but now the relationships between the two countries is strained. America has not bolstered the strength in the region which was promised. Largely this is due to Russian aggression in Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, and a mass refugee crisis radiating from Syria which has diverted attention and resources away from the region.  But the lack of pivot also seems to suggest that America isn’t serious in the region. This is extremely concerning to our allies, as they incur China’s wrath for adopting policies that are independent of China, and yet American foot dragging in the region signals to our allies that they might not receive American support when they need it.  The Philippine president recently said that he is considering a pivot to China, and wants to scale back their joint patrols and training with American forces.  American forces may refuel but cannot begin the mission there. It’s unclear exactly why they are making the distinction except to stick a thumb in America’s eye and possibly signal a shift to China.

The increasingly frosty and distant relationship with the Philippines isn’t the only issue in the region.  Vietnam is dredging an island in the South China Sea. The Ladd reef is about 15 degrees west of the Spratly islands, the largest chain in the South China Sea and parts of it are contested by every power in the region including Vietnam, Philippines, and China.  The Chinese are the most prolific and militaristic in this region, but they are not the only ones making aggressive moves.  Ladd reef is normally submerged at high tide but satellite images show work being done that will artificially raise the island. The Vietnamese already have troops stationed in the light house of the island and will likely station more once the construction is complete. The island will still be rather small but could be an important base for Vietnamese missiles and small ships.

Vietnam has two very important missiles that act as a vital deterrent. Ironically, they are often more worried about Chinese aggression rather than American.  They have the P800 Onyx cruise missiles which can be launched from a variety of platforms including ground based missile sites. The number of firing platforms and the reliability of the missiles make this something China should be concerned with. On top of that, Vietnam operates the S 3000 missiles SAM. Both of these missiles would make the island and the region around it relatively difficult to attack.

Vietnam’s navy is much smaller than China’s, but they have versatile, capable, and fast corvettes and frigates that operate as vital missile platforms. The frigates in particular are good at engaging other ships, aircraft, and hunting submarines.  Vietnam’s focus on small ships and having frigates as the backbone of the navy suggests that Vietnam is not looking for large scale naval battles and confrontations with battleships. Rather, they seek to perform small operations and contest Chinese actions that are on the lower end of the conflict spectrum. A small island base in a contested region would be ideal in helping Vietnam complete those missions.

These are just two examples of fraught tension in the region. The US opposes the effort of any country to artificially create and seize islands as it will invite the same actions by other powers and destabilize the region. This is why America continues to insist upon their right to operate in open waters and tries to reaffirm the importance of freedom of navigation operations. While the operations are normally aimed at China, at times they can irk the smaller powers in the region, including Vietnam, who is also seizing and possibly militarizing islands.  The Philippines are also concerned about America’s commitment to the region and they are taking steps that could indicate a possible realignment. There are no simple actions or solutions in the region at this time.

The South China Sea remains in a tense state, but the US affirmation of international law is an important step to peace for the region and for the major powers including Vietnam, China, and the Philippines. Yet, there is a danger of confrontation and a danger of alienating an ally in these operations. There is also a danger of inaction and all of these issues underscore the need for additional attention and analysis. Continued disputes over islands, militarization of such islands, and weapons placed in strategic locations all beg the world to take note and look at the region, imploring Americans to make sure such a location does not get breezed over due to other world issues of today. A delicate balance of action and inaction must be considered to keep peace.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman.  Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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