The near collision last week between a US warship and a Chinese destroyer in the Spratlys was more than two naval powers playing cat and mouse on the high sea. The incident came hot on the heels of Trump and Pence accusing China of meddling in US midterm elections, America slapping sanctions on China’s defence procurement unit and its head for buying S-400 air defense system from Russia, wild allegations that China interned more than one million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and the intensifying Sino-American trade war.
Such vitriol coming thick and fast from Washington perturbs and angers Beijing, even though China was the preferred scapegoat and whipping boy in past American hustings. What is different this time round is the total and full-frontal assault on the People’s Republic since the National Security Strategy report in December last year named Beijing, along with Moscow, as the foremost threats and adversaries to Washington. Already, the venom and viciousness spouted by Washington against China in recent weeks have far surpassed that directed at Russia.
America’s Unipolar Moment was well and truly over when Russia regained Crimea after the US-orchestrated coup against the democratically-elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Cold War 2.0 began in earnest when Moscow sent troops to Syria in September 2015 at the request of President Assad to help Damascus fight against ISIS terrorists sponsored, trained and armed by the US. The new Cold War expanded to include China late last year after the National Security Strategy report.
It’s against such backdrop and in such geopolitical context that the recent incident in the Spratlys should be viewed. China’s patience and tolerance with almost monthly freedom of navigation patrols or FONP by the American Navy has been tested to the limit. The sanctions imposed on China for purchase of S-400 and allegations of interference in American elections were the proverbial last straws that broke the camel’s back. Beijing considered it necessary to send a strong warning to the Pentagon to cease and desist. Just as the mid-air collision between the American reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island 17 years ago put a stop to US aerial reconnaissance near the Chinese southern coast, Beijing wanted to stop America’s incursion into the territorial waters of Chinese islands in South China Sea. Should the US Navy intrude again into 12 nautical miles of those islands, a collision or worse would be more than likely to occur.
The Pentagon took China’s utmost restraint in the face of provocations as weakness and stepped up its FONP in recent months. That has raised tension anew in South China Sea after the Philippines and Vietnam reached accommodation with China on disputed maritime claims in the region, and after Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China agreed on a draft Code of Conduct for South China Sea. Restoration of peace in the Western Pacific unsettles and vexes the Provocateur-in-Chief, who feels compelled to step into the breach, and exhorts Australia, Japan, the UK and France to do the same.
America has reportedly drawn up plans to stage a large-scale show of force in South China Sea after the near collision. China is certain to respond vigorously to such intimidation. If that were to come to pass, it would be déjà vu : Uncle Sam’s two aircraft carriers and numerous warships were strutting in South China Sea immediately before and after the issue of Hague arbitral rulings on maritime disputes between China and the Philippines in July 2016. China responded to the threat by despatching all its three naval fleets to the Paracels for the biggest military drill ever. The upshot was the American armada fled with their tails between their legs. Should the US re-enact the war theater of the absurd, the outcome would be no different this time. Two years on, China’s Navy has put into service more submarines, battleships and anti-ship missiles including the “carrier killer” DF-21D missiles, not to mention China’s first flattop Liaoning is now combat-ready.
Indeed, as Mao Zedong said decades earlier, America is just a paper tiger. For the US to take on China in South China Sea would be biting off more than they can chew. Several computer simulations by the Pentagon have shown that the US Navy would sustain heavy losses in a confrontation with China in those waters.
It goes without saying that Washington isn’t the least interested in the barren rocks in South China Sea. The US Seventh Fleet is there to contain and intimidate China, together with more than 200 military bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam. Even though Pentagon know full well they enjoy no clear advantage in a hot war with China in South China Sea, they still haven’t tired of the game of bluff and one-upmanship. China has had enough of the game, and is ready to call America’s bluff. If accidents happen as a result, there is no love lost.