China and the United States Could Avoid an Unnecessary War

tags: China, international relations

Lawrence Wittner (https://www.lawrenceswittner.com/ ) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

Although few Americans seem to have noticed, China and the United States are currently on a collision course—one that could easily lead to war.

Their dispute, which has reached the level of military confrontation, concerns control of the South China Sea.  For many years, China has claimed sovereignty over 90 percent of this vast, island-studded region—a major maritime trade route rich in oil, natural gas, and lucrative fishing areas.  But competing claims for portions of the South China Sea have been made for decades by other nations that adjoin it, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.  Starting in 2013, China began to assert its control more forcefully by island-building in the Paracel and Spratly Islands—expanding island size or creating new islands while constructing ports, airstrips, and military installations on them.

Other countries, however, protested Chinese behavior.  In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, acting on a complaint by the Philippines that Chinese action violated the freedom of navigation guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, decided in favor of the Philippines, although it did not rule on the ownership of the islands.  In response, the government of China, a party to the UN treaty, refused to accept the court’s jurisdiction.  Meanwhile, the U.S. government, which was not a party to the treatyinsisted on the treaty’s guarantee of free navigation and proceeded to challenge China by sailing its warships through waters claimed by the Chinese government.

Actually, the positions of the Chinese and U.S. governments both have some merit.  The Chinese, after all, conducted a variety of operations in this maritime region for millennia.  Also, some of the islands are currently controlled by other claimants (such as Vietnam), and China has been working for years with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a Code of Conduct that might finally resolve the regional dispute.  Nevertheless, the U.S. government can point to China’s provocative militarization of the islands, the rejection of China’s stance by most other nations in Southeast Asia, and the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

But the bottom line is that the issue of legitimate control remains unclear and, meanwhile, both the Chinese and U.S. governments are engaging in reckless behavior that could lead to disaster.

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