Recent events in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea have painted an alarming picture of escalating military tensions between the US and China. This past Saturday marked another close call when a Chinese vessel ventured within 150 yards of an American destroyer, compelling it to reduce its speed. This incident followed a prior near-miss, when a Chinese fighter jet cut across the path of a US aircraft, prompting an official rebuke from the United States.
These close encounters, indicative of an intensifying standoff, show no sign of abating. The White House has expressed concerns about China's apparent escalation in military assertiveness, while China counters that the US is deliberately stoking risks by maintaining a strong military presence in international waters.
A significant facet of this growing tension is China's pushback against US military dominance in the region, backed by its burgeoning economic and military prowess under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. The Chinese government views the US as an unwelcome intruder, disrupting regional stability. They are leveraging their expanding military capabilities to counter the longstanding US influence in Asia.
A key point of contention lies in the so-called "freedom of navigation" patrols, which involve the US and its allies navigating naval vessels through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. China has raised objections to the presence of US vessels and aircraft near islands that it controls or claims. In response, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) often trails these US vessels.
According to Jennifer Parker, a defence expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, "there appears to be a general encouragement, perhaps even incentive scheme for unit commanders of PLA to be assertive when the opportunity presents, which is encouraging more reckless behaviour at the unit level."
Such actions by the PLA raise the potential for collisions, which could escalate into a broader military conflict. Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the RAND Corporation, suggests that such a collision scenario is the most likely path to a US-China war, more so than Beijing seizing a feature in the disputed South China Sea or attacking Taiwan.
However, the view of the situation differs starkly between the two nations. The US perceives China as the disruptor of the status quo, especially due to its threats against Taiwan and its claims over the resource-rich South China Sea. To counter this, the US insists on asserting its right to navigate near China. On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party regards US activities as the real source of regional instability. Tong Zhao, a visiting scholar at Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs, notes that Chinese officials generally believe that China can only mitigate risks by escalating its military measures against the US's aggressive actions.
The lack of effective communication between the two military forces further fuels this standoff. The US has repeatedly requested open lines of communication with the PLA to prevent accidental flare-ups, but China has been reluctant to establish such channels, often suspending them during diplomatic tensions. The lack of communication was evident when China declined a US request for a call between the defence chiefs of the two countries following an incident involving a Chinese spy balloon in US airspace.
These developments are not just theoretical risks. In 2001, a US spy plane made an emergency landing on Hainan island following a collision with a Chinese fighter jet. The incident resulted in the death of a Chinese pilot and a 11-day detainment of a 24-member US crew, who were only released after the US issued a formal apology. As history has shown, these escalating tensions have real consequences, underlining the importance of ongoing efforts to manage this high-stakes rivalry.