China clearly can bark, but will it bite? The Guardian reports that its leaders openly discussing the possibility of armed conflict with the United States:
China has warned the US that its “dangerous and provocative acts” in the South China Sea could lead to “a minor incident that sparks war”.
China’s naval commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, issued the warning to his American counterpart Admiral John Richardson during video conference talks on Thursday aimed at defusing tension in the region, according to a Chinese naval statement.
“If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war,” the statement paraphrased Wu as saying.
Harsh words, but probably not a sign of worse things to come—at least not soon. Nevertheless, there is a danger that pressure back home will drive Beijing to become even more aggressive in the South China Sea, particularly now that a UN court in the Hague has agreed to hear the Philippines’ case that China is violating international law. The decision is a blow to China’s public relations, undermining its argument that it has been behaving legally and fairly. Particularly if the court finds against Beijing, Chinese nationalists will feel isolated and hurt.
All of this notwithstanding, is critical that the U.S. and other countries continue freedom of navigation activities and even intensify them in response to pressure. It is impossible to give up on this issue without a fundamental shift in the international system, one that would harm America’s Pacific alliances and create a new system based on Chinese supremacy. Further, precisely because China can afford to take it slow and escalate by increments, the U.S. and its allies should feel some urgency. The costs of confronting China are likely only to go up.
Unfortunately, President Obama’s policy of strategic dithering is likely encouraging some in China to test him.