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War in the South China Sea?

“If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” said an editorial in the Global Times last week. The Global Times is an English-language daily paper specialising in international affairs that is published by the People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s official newspaper. So we should presumably take what it says seriously.

But really, a US-Chinese war in the South China Sea? Over a bunch of reefs that barely clear the water at high tide, and some fishing rights and mineral rights that might belong to China if it can bully, persuade, or bribe the other claimants into renouncing their claims? The GDP of the United States is $16.8 trillion each year, and China’s GDP is $9.2 trillion. All the resources of the South China Sea would not amount to $1 trillion over fifty years.

Great powers end up fighting great wars. Counting a pre-war arms race, the losses during the war (even assuming it doesn’t go nuclear), and a resumed arms race after the war, the long-term cost of a US-Chinese war over the South China Sea could easily be $5 trillion. Are you sure this is a good idea?

Yet stupid things do happen. Consider the Falklands War. In 1982, Britain and Argentina fought a quite serious little war (more than nine hundred people were killed, ships were sunk, etc.) over a couple of islands in the South Atlantic that had no strategic and little economic value.

Maybe that’s not relevant. After all, Argentina had never been a great power, and by 1982 Britain was no longer really one either. The war in the Falklands was, said Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “a fight between two bald men over a comb.” Yet it is a bit worrisome, isn’t it? It didn’t make strategic or economic sense, but they did it anyway.

Let’s look at the question from another angle. Who is the messenger that bears such alarming news about a US-Chinese war? The Global Times, although published by the Chinese Communist government, is a tabloid newspaper in the style of the New York Post or the Daily Mail in Britain: down-market, sensationalist, and not necessarily accurate.

But it has never published anything that the Chinese authorities did not want published. So the question becomes: WHY did the Chinese authorities want this story published? Presumably to frighten the United States enough to make it stop challenging the Chinese claims in the South China Sea. This is turning into a game of chicken, and China has just thrown out the brakes.

Would Beijing really go to war if the United States doesn’t stop overflying the reefs in question and carrying out other activities that treat the Chinese claim as unproven? Probably even the bosses in Beijing don’t know the answer to that. But they really do intend to control the South China Sea, and the United States and its local friends and allies (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan) really will not accept that.

The Chinese claim truly is astonishingly brazen. The “nine-dash line”, an official map published by the Beijing government in 1949, claims practically ALL the uninhabited reefs and tiny islands in the shallow sea as Chinese territory, even ones that are 700 km from the Chinese coast and 150 km from the Philippines or Vietnam.

Since the islands might all generate Exclusive Economic Zones of 300 km, China may be planning to claim rights over the entire sea up to an average of about 100 km off the coasts of the other countries that surround the sea. It hasn’t actually stated the details of that claim yet, but it is investing a lot in laying the foundations for such a claim.

It’s as if the the United States built some reefs in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, claimed them as sovereign territory, and then said that the whole sea belonged to the US except for narrow coastal strips for Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, etc.

China is actually building islands as part of this strategy: taking low-lying reefs and building them up with enormous quantities of sand, rock and cement to turn them into (marginally) habitable places. Then it acts astonished and offended when other countries challenge this behaviour, or even send reconnaissance flights to see what the Chinese are up to.

The veiled threats and the bluster that accompany this are intended to warn all the other claimants off. It’s been going on for years, but it’s getting much more intense as the Chinese project for building military bases all over the South China Sea (it denies that that’s what they are, of course) nears completion. So now the rhetoric steps up to actual warning of a Chinese-US war.

The Global Times is right, whether its writers know it or not. If China keeps acting as if its claims were universally accepted and unilaterally expanding the reefs to create large bases with airstrips and ports, and the US and local powers go on challenging China’s claims, then there really could be a war. Later, not now, and not necessarily ever, but it could happen.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13.