The United States recently increased its naval patrols in the South China Sea, which has started a heated debate among international relations experts who are now hinting at the strong possibility of a military conflict between China and the U.S. in the coming years. U.S. naval patrols in this region have been viewed as a direct threat to Chinese sovereignty, and the Xi Jinping administration has openly warned the United States against such actions.

China vs. U.S. South China Sea
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Beijing views the U.S. Naval patrols in the South China Sea as an act of provocation. China has vowed again and again that its motives behind activities in South China Sea are peaceful and said that any such actions from the U.S. will only make the situation confrontational, which is in the interest of no one.

Former U.S. ambassador unimpressed by U.S. policies

The same sentiments have been echoed by aormer U.S. Ambassador Chas Freeman, who has termed these naval patrols from the United States as threatening to Chinese sovereignty. According to Freeman, such provocative actions add to the possibility of a military confrontation between the two great powers of the world in the contemporary era.

Freeman warned the United States regarding the possible consequences of these naval patrols in the South China Sea. He stated that if the U.S. continued with its policy of pressing China in order to contain its increasing presence in the Asia Pacific region, China will soon retaliate, which will spark the possibility of a military confrontation between the two countries.

He added that the U.S. backs its patrols with the legal grounds of its freedom of navigation in international waters but added that this statement will not satisfy Beijing, and given the rise of China in recent years, the Xi Jinping administration will not accept this and will not stand back and let America do as it pleases in the region. The United States is playing a dangerous game here and is living on the edge. China might not be in the mood to tolerate any level of threat to its sovereignty, and these naval patrols have, without a doubt, posed a great challenge to China’s ambitions in the region.

U.S. not willing to give up on South China Sea stance

Despite the massive public outrage from Beijing, the United States has vowed to continue its naval activities in the disputed South China Sea. The head of U.S. Navy Pacific Command confirmed Washington’s ambitions when he stated that the U.S. will continue its naval patrols in the South China Sea, dismissing claims from Beijing that such actions are provocative.

Japan is in constant contact with the United States regarding the latter’s engagement in the South China Sea. Japan and China do not enjoy a good relationship, with several islands in the South China Sea being the major bone of contention between them. Chinese authorities have also blamed Japan for inviting the United States into the region and allowing it to meddle in a matter which is completely alien to it.

Conflicting U.S. policies on China

And what’s more, U.S. actions in dealing with China are contradictory to ach other. On one hand, the United States is increasing economic cooperation with China, while on the other, it is trying to contain China’s rise. Freeman expressed shock over such dual policies from Washington and added that the Obama administration is confused about how to deal with the China problem. He stated that the USA cannot have it both ways. If Washington sees China as a challenger to the existing world order, then it cannot continue with the policy of cooperation in some areas and confrontation in other issues.

But China is as confused as the United States, and both global powers still have no idea what to do with the other. This is a dangerous scenario and can lead to a strong possibility of a military confrontation between the two states.

Chinese stance to remain unchanged

China has continued constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea and has sped up the work in the past year or so. That has prompted the United States to call for a total demilitarization of the disputed sea. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter encouraged China, Japan and other countries to stop reclamation and halt militarization activities in the South China Sea.

China has, however, continued its activities and now claims sovereignty over the artificial land in the South China Sea along with the 12 nautical mile zone that surrounds the islands. The United States has echoed Japanese sentiment in announcing that it does not recognize China’s claim on these islands. These are man-made islands, and China cannot claim sovereignty over them and hence cannot claim the 12 nautical mile zone adjacent to those islands, according to the U.S.

Whatever happens next, it seems that both China and the U.S. will stick with their respective stance on the South China Sea, and the possibility of a military confrontation in the region will continue to escalate in coming years — unless one of the two powers shows some flexibility in its approach. Until then, a U.S.-China military confrontation in South China Sea remains a strong possibility — one that could lead to a war which, if it happens, will not be confined to just one region.