A mysterious incident involving a U.S. nuclear submarine in the South China Sea has prompted analysts to weigh the risk that a similar incident – perhaps involving a U.S. treaty partner – could spark an unnecessary conflict between the United States and China.
Experts say the danger is growing as Beijing aggressively advances its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, while the West counters with increasing maritime passage in support of freedom of navigation in disputed waters.
Last month, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia announced a new security alliance that further increases this stakes. This security partnership will provide Australia with 10 new nuclear-powered submarines.
In the latest incident, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet said in a press release that a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine struck an unknown underwater object Oct. 2.
The U.S. Navy said the crew of its Seawolf-class submarine, the USS Connecticut, was injured, but no lives were threatened, and it is investigating what happened.
But an analysis published on the Chinese-owned China Military Network news site said the U.S. used the nuclear submarine to “secretly violate China’s territorial waters in the South China Sea, risking a miscalculation that could spark a war between the two powers.
The analyst from China Military Network is not the only one who is concerned about this. Other experts have told Voice of America that they fear a more serious incident between China and a U.S. treaty ally such as Japan or the Philippines, which in some cases could trigger a serious reaction from Washington.
Scott Harold, a senior political scientist in Washington at the research firm RAND Corp. said the exact measures the U.S. takes will depend on the details of the actual incident.
“Is the impact an attack or does it have to result in injury or actual death or sinking?” Heckcott asked. “I think those are areas where U.S. policymakers, particularly U.S. defense officials and military officers, will soon try to assess what the intent is, what the thresholds are, whether the host nation – Japan or the Philippines as a third party – can be able to respond without the United States?”
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii did not return a reporter’s request for comment on the risk of an incident near China.
Communist China’s neighbors, U.S. allies
While the Philippines and three other Western-leaning Southeast Asian countries also claim sovereignty over the South China Sea, the Communist Party of China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea for itself. Beijing claims sovereignty over the entire island of Taiwan, an autonomous island backed by Washington, and it also vies with Japan for control of parts of the East China Sea.
Successive U.S. presidents have seen their Asian allies as buffers against the Chinese Communist Party in a showdown between the superpowers. Under treaties signed by the United States, it is obligated to consider helping its allies in a military crisis.
Analysts believe the increasing number of Chinese Communist Party military aircraft flying near Taiwan has sparked fears of accidents. Taiwan’s air force sometimes drives away mainland Chinese military aircraft, and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act gives Washington the option of intervening on Taiwan’s side.
“How long do you poke Taiwan in the face with your fist before you have a miscalculation at some point?” Carl Thayer, professor emeritus of political science at the University of New South Wales in Australia, asked. “These planes could cross a line, or Taiwan’s air defenses, that could lead to a missile launch. Taiwan’s air defenses have been activated and locked on to some of these planes as a warning.”
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said news reports this month that U.S. troops have been stationed in Taiwan for at least a year may have prompted an angry Chinese Communist Party to send more planes to the island.
Hu Yishan said the Philippine side could have an incident with a Chinese ship even if it is warned by the United States. In 2012, Chinese and Philippine ships were locked in a protracted standoff over Scarborough Shoal (known in China as Huangyan Island), he added, if Sino-Philippine relations become a campaign issue. Both sides claimed the fishery-rich Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island) as their own.
He said, “I think the Filipinos are very independent and when something happens, the U.S. will probably come to their rescue under treaty obligations.”
A miscalculation involving China and Japan could prompt the U.S. to look at “gray area contingencies” before responding, Heckert said.
That would mean knowing whether the accident involved a Chinese naval vessel or a fishing boat, for example, Heckcott said. U.S. officials will further examine whether Japan needs U.S. help or whether it can act on its own, he said.
He said allies, including the United States, Britain and Australia, are making it increasingly clear to China that they will “respond in case of emergency.
Informal Chinese and foreign channels to cover up incidents
Analysts believe China and the United States have their own informal channels for resolving collisions and accidental gunfire, reducing the risk of conflict.
Beijing wants to avoid war, they say, but can get very annoyed and blame the U.S. for any mishaps. the Communist Party was both annoyed after the deadly U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 – an attack Washington called an accident – and after a U.S. reconnaissance plane had to make an emergency landing in 2001 after being chased by two Chinese fighter jets off China’s southern coast. also blamed the United States.
“The situation has basically turned into a cowardly game where countries are just tailing each other,” said Eduardo Araral, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s School of Public Policy. “Both sides may not intend to hurt each other, but accidents can and do happen.”