Assessing the Risk of War in the South China Sea (2014 Edition)

Pag-asa Island
Pag-Asa Island

I wrote more than a year ago that there was little reason to worry that the Scarborough Shoal incident would turn into a war, as many feared, because the structural dynamics were such that there was no way for the Philippine or Chinese navy to fight. I am writing now because I think there is reason for concern over a recent report that the Chinese military has plans to seize Pag-Asa Island off the coast of Palawan (also see The Diplomat’s analysis).

Unlike the Scarborough Shoal, it is occupied by Philippine civilians and military personnel. It is also significantly further south than the shoal and is a sizable enough piece of land that people might fight, and die, to protect. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where China takes Pag-Asa without killing some of the Filipino soldiers there. Successfully taking the island would give the Chinese PLA an airfield with the ability to project military power up to the Malaysian border and the lower reaches of Vietnam. 

Screenshot 2014-01-21 18.51.26

My concern stems from three dynamics: first, at this juncture, seizing Pag-Asa does not seem like an illogical next step for the Chinese government. It would match the overall discourse of the CCP, it seems to match their military capabilities, and it would not seem an order of magnitude more aggressive than what we have seen so far. This is because their aggression has been slowly, but solidly, rising over the past five years. It is not just one data point that makes this seem more likely, but several that highlight a relatively clear trajectory when taken together. Both people and states tend to test risky behaviors until they find limits, and the Chinese have not yet encountered any.

Second, there is a window of opportunity for the Chinese to act on an island like Pag-Asa. As I wrote in my last analysis, the situation I described would change when and if the Philippines re-arms. They are now doing just that. Within a few years, we should expect the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to have modern ships, modern anti-img250614651218544616ship missiles, and modern jet fighters. The New York Times has an excellent story on how lightly defended the islands are now, calling it a game of “shark vs minnow.” If the Chinese have plans for taking Pag-Asa, they would be wise to do it before the AFP can launch a defense of the island. The only thing stopping them right now is fear of a US response and fear of world opinion. There is little evidence that the Xi government is in the business of courting favorable world opinion. 

This leads to my largest concern over what looks like like a tattered US defense shield. It is not clear where the US government draws a ‘line in the sand’ in containing Chinese expansion. While not faulting the United States for its lack of intervention in the Scarborough Shoal incident, it clearly represented a space in which the United
States was not prepared to defend an ally because did not consider it enough of a strategic concern to fight with China over, either rhetorically or with bullets. This means it is unclear what the United States government thinks of Pag-Asa Island in relation to its defense treaty with the Philippines.

The mixture of these three dynamics creates a situation that reminds me of Dean Acheson’s ‘containment’ perimeter for communist expansion during the Cold War. Many historians believe that South Korea was invaded, in part, because it was not originally included in the US line of defense against communist expansion. The North Koreans miscalculated and assumed that the United States would not respond. The reality was that the United States saw enough strategic interest in preserving the South Korean state to sacrifice tens of thousands soldiers for.



Chinese leaders might be led to assume that the United States will not defend the Philippines were they to ‘retake’ Pag-Asa. Like the North Koreans, they might well be wrong and discover that the United States believes it is in its core interests to protect the island from a Chinese ‘invasion.’ The risks of miscalculation and mis-communication would seem particularly acute. The US government even insists that it is not  ‘containing’ China, even if that’s exactly what the ‘Pivot to Asia‘ looks like.  As an observer of both American, Chinese, and Philippine politics, I have no clear prediction as to how the US would respond. I believe this makes for a dangerous situation where risks cannot be fully evaluated and tend towards underestimation. 

I am not arguing that one should expect imminent war. Rather, it should dispel myths that great power politics will look fundamentally different in the 21st century compared to the 19th and 20th centuries. We are entering a period of greater risks, as Chinese power expands and US power either contracts or counter-acts. China is probing the limits of US power and it is unknown what will happen when they find it. It is worth concluding by quoting at length for John Mearsheimer’s speech, The Gathering Storm:

I expect China to act the way the United States has acted over its long history. Specifically, I believe that China will try to dominate the Asia-Pacific region much as the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. For good strategic reasons, China will seek to maximize the power gap between itself and potentially dangerous neighbors like India, Japan, and Russia. China will want to make sure that it is so powerful that no state in Asia has the wherewithal to threaten it. It is unlikely that China will pursue military superiority so that it can go on the warpath and conquer other countries in the region, although that is always a possibility. Instead, it is more likely that Beijing will want to dictate the boundaries of acceptable behavior to neighboring countries, much the way the United States makes it clear to other states in the Americas that it is the boss. Gaining regional hegemony, I might add, is probably the only way that China will get Taiwan back.
A much more powerful China can also be expected to try to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region, much the way the United States pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere in the 19th century. We should expect China to come up with its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as Imperial Japan did in the 1930s. In fact, we are already seeing inklings of that policy. Consider that in March, Chinese officials told two high-ranking American policymakers that the United States was no longer allowed to interfere in the South China Sea, which China views as a ‘core interest’ like Taiwan and Tibet


One Comment

  1. George Wong said:

    You are right that China wants to create its own Monroe doctrine. There is nothing wrong except that it must have the muscle to do it. As Mao once said,power come the barrel of the gun.
    To this end the PLA are feverishly working not to get parity with US forces. Looking for superiority is a fool’s errand. They need to make the US understands it will tangle with China 2014 and not Mao’s China where Ike’s statement that you would use the atomic bomb as you would use bullet was enough to intimidate Mao and cause him to back down over Taiwan 1954 and 1958.I am very confident here will be no replay of 1996 when US carriers sail through the Taiwan Straits unmolested.

    January 24, 2014

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