As China and the U.S. trade barbs over everything from trade to Covid-19 to Hong Kong, the two powers are at greater risk of careering into physical confrontation.
And nowhere are their warships and fighter jets coming as close to each other, with as much frequency, as the South China Sea.
A military conflict would probably be devastating for both. There are no signs that either side actually wants one.
Still, in times of high tension, miscalculations can have unintended consequences.
In the first four months of the year the U.S. Navy conducted four freedom of navigation operations, known as FONOPS, in the South China Sea, which is criss-crossed by competing claims by nations including China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
That puts it on track to surpass last year’s total of eight. At the same time, as China emerged from the worst of the coronavirus outbreak, its Navy steamed back out of port in Hainan and resumed drills in the area.
It’s a high-stakes game of cat and mouse between the militaries of two countries with a history of near-misses.
With President Donald Trump months from an election, and President Xi Jinping rattling nationalistic cages at home to distract from a wounded economy, the mood is less conducive to the careful diplomacy needed to defuse a standoff at sea.
Xi used an address Tuesday to delegates at the National People’s Congress in Beijing to again warn the military to strengthen war preparations.
“While a premeditated armed conflict between China and the U.S. is a remote possibility, we see their military assets operating in greater regularity and at higher intensity in the same maritime domain,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“The interactions of these rival assets in the area would create chances of miscalculation and misjudgment leading to inadvertent or accidental use of force, which is thus potentially incendiary and could result in escalation. This is a risk we can’t discount.”
Deputy assistant secretary of defense for Southeast Asia, Reed Werner, last week warned of a “very worrisome” trendline during an interview with Fox News, accusing China of the “harassment” of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer U.S.S. Mustin while it patrolled the South China Sea.
He also cited at least nine instances of Chinese fighter jets doing the same to U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused “non-regional countries” of “flexing their muscles” in an effort to sow discord between China and Southeast Asian nations.
Security experts familiar with the Malaysian government’s thinking said officials in Kuala Lumpur expressed concern to the U.S. that its presence would only serve to escalate the matter.
A spokeswoman for Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment. The U.S. was “clearly sending a signal,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Still, it does not cover the coast guard or fishing militias, which are increasingly used by China to assert its claims to more than 80% of the South China Sea.
“The U.S.-China relationship is in free fall now, pushed by the hardliners from both sides. No doubt, the new Cold War between the two is escalating, and now people begin to worry about the possibility of a hot war, a regional one.”