Are we heading toward a military showdown with China?

Between the tensions taking place with Taiwan and the United States already issuing warnings about fighter jets launching from new artificial islands, relations have been tense with China for more than a year. We’ve written about this here on multiple occasions, but my general conclusion has always remained that there is probably – hopefully – no fire under all of that smoke. But as provocations of one kind or another continue, David Ignatius is beginning to wonder if we’re on the brink of a dangerous showdown with Beijing. (Washington Post)

The confrontation has been building for the past three years, as China has constructed artificial islands off its southern coast and installed missiles and radar in disputed waters, despite U.S. warnings. It could come to a head this spring, when an arbitration panel in The Hague is expected to rule that China is making “excessive” claims about its maritime sovereignty.

What makes this dispute so explosive is that it pits an American president who needs to affirm his credibility as a strong leader against a risk-taking Chinese president who has shown disregard for U.S. military power and who faces potent political enemies at home.

“This isn’t Pearl Harbor, but if people on all sides aren’t careful, it could be ‘The Guns of August,’?” says Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for Asia, referring to the chain of miscalculations that led to World War I. The administration, he says, is facing “another red line moment where it has to figure out how to carry through on past warnings.”

Just to show that it’s not simply a United States problem, keep in mind that other nations are getting in random scrapes with China at the same time. Just this month the Argentinians sank a Chinese fishing vessel.

Argentina’s coast guard sank a Chinese fishing boat that attacked when authorities tried to stop it for illegal fishing in the South Atlantic, officials said Tuesday.

The boat’s crew were all rescued alive, police said in a statement.

“The offending vessel carried out maneuvers to collide with the coast guard patrol, putting at risk not only its own crew’s lives but also those of coast guard personnel. Thus the order was given to fire on different sections of the vessel, damaging it,” the statement said.

As far as the Sino-American situation goes, I’m not going to play down the seriousness of the situation here too much, and I freely admit that things have room to escalate a bit more. By the same token, I believe that there is still reason to predict that we’re not on a path toward some completely catastrophic scenario. First and foremost, The Hague is free to issue whatever findings it likes because China is equally free to ignore them. Heck, we do it all the time. There’s no reason for things to suddenly escalate to a hypothetical point of no return simply because an international court with no real, binding force behind it declares that China is in violation of maritime law.

Further, there’s the question of just how far the Obama administration is willing to push things with the Chinese, particularly in light of how many other plates we’re keeping in the air at the moment. It seems logical that China will assume that we’re not really willing to go to the wall given how disastrous an actual war would be to both sides. They’re playing from a position of strength here and our military resources are already stretched fairly thin. If they continue their expansion into the South China Sea, particularly considering their new class of aircraft carriers which are already under construction, what are we supposed to do about it? There may be some gamesmanship going on and potentially even a few warning shots fired across the bow, but I’d imagine that they are counting on the United States to back off.

This is China’s back yard we’re talking about and they clearly weren’t thrilled with the Pacific Pivot that Obama announced earlier in his administration. When you combine these factors with the enormous financial ties between our two countries, neither of us can afford a total breakdown in relations, to say nothing of a shooting war. We’ve lost the upper hand in the region from the looks of things and there are few, if any options to regain it.