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How China Began World War III in the South China Sea

3 14 45

Kerry K. Gershaneck, James E. Fanell

Security, Asia

In this what-if scenario, Beijing's SCS war will bring ‘unimagined’ results.

How China Began World War III in the South China Sea

China’s claims of South China Sea (SCS) ownership are illegal, but Beijing’s hyper-nationalistic officials increasingly encourage its forces to attack U.S. Navy ships operating lawfully there.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) appears to be calling for war—a war it may well get. But it is a war that will not stay confined to that body of water, and a war that could ultimately end with regime change in Beijing.

One People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer recently exhorted PLA Navy vessels to ram and sink U.S. Navy ships conducting freedom of navigation operations in the SCS. Another called for the sinking of two U.S. aircraft carriers and killing upward of 10,000 U.S. sailors to force the U.S. from these hotly contested waters.

“If the US warships break into Chinese waters again, I suggest that two warships should be sent: one to stop it, and another one to ram it,” said PLA Air Force Colonel Commandant Dai Xu on December 8, 2018. Dai, president of China’s Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation, proposed these unprovoked acts of war in a highly publicized forum: at a conference sponsored by Beijing Global Times.

A senior PLA Navy officer then called for the sinking of two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers to “frighten” the U.S. away from the SCS. In a speech on December 20, 2018, Rear Admiral Luo Yuan, the deputy head of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, asserted that the key for Chinese domination of the SCS lies in using ballistic missiles to sink the two carriers, killing as many American sailors as possible.

“What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” Luo said in his call to kill upwards of 10,000 U.S. sailors. “We’ll see how frightened America is,” he said.

Some might argue such belligerence from senior PLA officers does not reflect China’s official policy or is simply Information Warfare, but these defenses are disingenuous. None of the senior officers has been publicly chastised by the PRC for inciting war, and the PLAN is engaging in increasingly-dangerous actions across the SCS.

On September 30, 2018 the PLAN destroyer Lanzhou drove within forty-five yards of the USS Decatur as it crossed the bow of the American warship near the SCS’ Gaven Reef. The Decatur’s commander averted collision only by deftly swerving to escape the Lanzhou’s aggressive maneuverings. The U.S. Navy diplomatically called the Lanzhou’s premeditated action “unsafe and unprofessional,” but it might more aptly be described as “attempted murder.”

The PLAN, China’s military-run Coast Guard, and its maritime militias have also threatened—and sank—Vietnamese ships, and has chased Philippine Navy and fishing fleets from Philippine waters.

Taiwan plays a major role in Beijing’s SCS calculus, as well. China’s ruler Xi Jinping has ordered the PLA to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2020. By taking exclusive control of the SCS, China has another angle of attack for its Taiwan invasion force, from the Bashi Channel.

China’s claims to ownership of the SCS are bogus, of course. On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague released the Arbitral Tribunal’s determination that China’s claim to “historic” SCS rights, through its so-called “nine-dash-line,” was illegal.

But in Beijing’s pursuit of Xi’s “Great Rejuvenation,” control over this resource-rich, strategically vital global commons is apparently worth a war—a world war.

“Conflagration with Unimagined Consequences”

The First World War offers a cautionary tale of how a seemingly minor incident can lead to global carnage, says former U.S. Lieutenant General Wallace C. Gregson.

“In 1914, during an era when war was considered illogical and unlikely, an itinerant worker killed Archduke Ferdinand and his wife,” says Gregson. “This violent act sparked an unexpected war of unprecedented carnage.” More than eight million died fighting the war, and perhaps thirteen million civilians died as a result of the conflict.

Four major empires, each bearing responsibility for the conflagration, collapsed: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman.

“Today the South China Sea is the most dangerous area in the world,” observed Gregson, a seasoned U.S. Marine Corps........

© The National Interest