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V. Conflict

One reason that America is being drawn into the South China Sea dispute is the fact that all of the other “claimants” – Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines – are in such an inferior naval position relative vis-à-vis to the PRC that there is no bona fide counterweight in the region save for the United States. China’s naval supremacy is overwhelming and absolute, and there is no real power among the ASEAN states that can put up competitive resistance should Beijing decide to enforce its will unilaterally by might with no regards for others.

To illustrate, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) possesses nearly twice as many surface combatant warships as all of the rest of the claimants combined and more than twenty times as many submarines. Such numbers do not belie the individual qualitative superiority of the PLAN warships, another factor in their favor. The PRC also has 11 naval bases already constructed in the area, giving it an embedded advantage in the region. In addition, the recent commissioning of the Varyag aircraft carrier, with more carriers likely on the way, gives the PLAN the potential to sustain a deployable airpower presence in the South China Sea that, even with its modest air wing, could outmatch nearly all local airpower in the region.

In short, a major conflict in the South China Sea would be bloody, but the PRC would doubtlessly come out on top. ASEAN nations have been bulking up their navies in recent times but this is expected to make little difference in the overall security equation, all the more so given the PLAN’s own rapid increase of strength from Beijing’s swelling defense budgets.

Unsurprisingly, the United States is willing to step in and has greatly increased its presence in the Sea since the beginning of the century, with many naval exercises held together with nations such as the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia. Such policy may indicate that the U.S. is seeking to develop a military alliance in the region to counteract against China and keep Beijing in check. Notably, the Russian Navy, formerly one of the great strategic players in the Pacific, appears to have withdrawn almost completely from the South China Sea region and plays little to no role in the game today.

a. The “Freedom of Navigation” (FON) program

At this point, there is another issue that must be taken into account. Since the Carter administration of the 1970s, the U.S. government has operated a confrontational program dubbed “Freedom of Navigation (FON.)” Under FON, American warships deliberately flout territorial claims of other nations that are considered to be illegal or unreasonable by passing through the challenged waters in a symbolic gesture of defiance, sometimes with violent consequences. FON was originally intended to challenge illegitimate Soviet maritime claims during the Cold War and is intended to persuade a coastal state to reverse policies or territorial claims that are considered detrimental to free navigation for all.

Should Washington consider Chinese claims to the South China Sea to be invalid, U.S. Navy warships under the auspices of the FON program will undoubtedly pass through these disputed waters and be challenged by warships of the PLAN, leading to more clashes, tension and incidents between U.S. and Chinese forces similar to the famous “Ramming Incident” between Soviet warships and the USS Yorktown in the Black Sea in February 1988, or the clashes with Libyan forces in the late 1980s over Kaddafi’s “Line of Death” in the Mediterranean Gulf of Sidra.

The danger of conflict between China and the United States in the South China Sea, then, may lie not in a deliberate war initiated by either side, but rather, by the escalation caused by a miscalculation, accident or incident between the two sides metastasizing into something greater. The danger of FON, especially after the April 2001 EP-3 spy plane incident, is that it increases the possibility of such accidental encounters between American and Chinese naval forces that could be the spark of flame put to the powder keg of tension and erupt in a full-blown conflict.

Nor is FON likely to be restrained or withheld as a kind gesture by any future China-friendly U.S. president. FON has been used with enthusiasm by every single presidential administration since Carter, ranging from all political types as Reagan to Clinton and has been deployed over than a thousand times against 35 different coastal nations. The PRC should fully anticipate provocative FON intrusions on part of the United States in regards to the future of the South China Sea and be ready ahead of time with a prepared response.