Two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 warplanes have engaged in what is being called a “simulated attack” on the USS Donald Cook. This may well be the most threatening close encounter between the two world powers since Russian forces began to undertake increasingly provocative missions against Western countries in response to the Ukraine Crisis. This incident, of course, comes ahead of the first NATO, Russian Council meeting in almost two years. Just as the Russian Navy deployed ships off the coast of Australia during the 2014 G20 Summit, where Vladimir Putin awkwardly embraced Barack Obama, the current incident was likely a show of dominance.
Like the November 2015 incident when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 “Fencer” fighter jet, however, Putin’s constant impulse to show his dominance by violating boundaries is going to eventually force a reaction. If not, a mistake will be made, which could result in harm to US forces, and a military response will be guaranteed. Although Putin seeks to discourage Westerners from further confronting Russia over the Ukraine Crisis and deviating from his lead on Syria, these types of provocations alert Westerners to the threat of Putin. That said, Putin also likely sees the growing risk of a conflict between the US and China as an opportunity to test his limits.
Thanks to the deployment of fighter jets in the disputed Paracel Island chain, Beijing has revealed its effort to build artificial islands with military infrastructure is more than just a means to legitimize its claims over the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea. It is a military buildup intended to enforce China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and beyond. Aside the US military responding in kind, Asian nations are positioning themselves to respond once a decision by the international arbitration court is reached on territorial claims across the South China Sea. The aggregate result is escalating tensions and an increased likelihood of a major conflict with China.
On the Chinese front, developments in the South China Sea Crisis and the crescendoing restarted of the Korean War are fostering animosity between US-aligned nations and China. On the Russian front, the Ukraine Crisis and Russian support of the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War are driving the US, Europe, and the Middle East to treat Russia as an enemy. What Vladimir Putin’s appears to believe is that the US will not risk conflict with Russia as well as China. In other words, the US will either chose to confront China or avoid conflict all together. The US would like to avoid armed conflict, but Putin’s impulse to dominate is making a US-Russian armed conflict inevitable.
Furthermore, just as the integrity of international law and norms are threatened by Russia’s seizure of Crimea in the case of the Ukraine Crisis, the integrity of international maritime Law and norms is also threatened by Chinese policies designed to circumvent the rules. At stake is the ability to travel freely through the South China Sea without fear of Chinese interference or attack. For South China Sea countries, their national security, territorial integrity, unsettled claims to a wealth of natural resources, and very sovereignty is threatened by China’s dominance.
The biggest problem is that Beijing relies on China’s extensive history to legitimize its territorial claims. As such, what Beijing considers Chinese territory appears to greatly depend on what points in history are most convenient. Considering Beijing’s claims could include China’s neighbors, such as the Koreas, and a large part of Russian territory, the Chinese government’s long-term agenda could be very detrimental to the Peoples within these lands. An armed conflict with the US would be problematic for China, even if it managed to garner the support of Russia.
Meanwhile, China cannot afford to sever long-term economic ties with the International Community. Beijing has been actively entangling itself in the economies of the world from Africa to South America, from Europe to Russia through investments and massive spending. While this may earn Beijing some influence that influence will evaporate just as quickly as US influence does when its partners find US support is inconvenient. Beijing is attempting to expand its global reach and its borders, yet its failings at home during its economic crisis also breeds civil unrest that would be magnified by war.
Where a war of attrition with strategic periods of aggression would help China slowly consume much of Asia, the US and its Asian allies are already alarmed by what is relatively mild Chinese aggression. If China become too aggressive in its claims or continues its current decades-old strategy of attrition, a thoroughly destructive armed conflict with the US and its Asian allies is a guarantee. As such, Beijing has every interest to both end the current tensions and avoid a broader conflict by abandoning whatever agenda it is implementing.
To China’s credit, it has taken steps to deescalate potential conflict by ratcheting down tensions with Vietnam, for example, over the Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil rig it towed into disputed waters in 2014. More policies decisions like this one are needed to ensure all of the issues provoking this regional conflict do not result in armed conflict. Recognizing the artificial islands would best serve a defensive strategy and China’s military is best suited to operate domestically, it appears the Chinese may be seeking a deterrent against armed conflict.
China does not appear to want an armed conflict with the US or its neighbors, especially in the wake of its massive economic crisis, or risk sparking a devastating third world war, which Russia may have been trying to instigate, and nuclear war. Since the Ukraine Crisis, as well as the Russian intervention Crisis in Syria, Chinese leadership appears to believe the US is more willing to risk armed conflict. In asserting Chinese interests and influence, it was presuming the US would not risk an armed conflict with China or Russia. That assumption has been proven invalid.
With that in mind, the US is not necessarily trying to pick a fight with China or even single out China. In his book, “Beyond the Age of Innocence,” former-Singapore Ambassador to the UN Kishore Mahbubani discussed America’s willingness to subsidize global security and enforce international law. He pointed out that the US would even use its military might to intervene against a neighboring ally like Canada, if it tried to block international waters. What Beijing needs to do is candidly engage its neighbors about its intentions and find ways to resolve the underlying territorial disputes in play before a major armed conflict arises. Russia needs to do the same.
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