Could Chinese aggression in the South China Sea be the spark that ignites the next war?

This appeared in The Millennial Source

In a Department of Defense (DOD) Report published September 2 — titled, “ Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China “ — the United States warned of Beijing’s increasing military capability, including their possible willingness to take over Taiwan through military force.

China has imposed an iron-willed pressure campaign against Taiwan over the past 10 years that has only intensified since the 2016 election of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president.

Due to Tsai’s election, China opted to halt formal communications with Taiwan and insisted that the self-ruled island must accept the “1992 Consensus,” a ruling stating that both mainland China and Taiwan belong to “one China” under Beijing’s sovereign.

According to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s 2019 defense white paper, the PRC aims to oppose and contain Taiwan independence, possibly by any means necessary.

Taiwan’s reunification

The comprehensive 200-page US Department of Defense report notes that China views Taiwan as one of its most eminent threats and that it has not renounced the use of military force for reintegration.

The account to Congress also suggests Beijing’s readiness to invade Taiwan, noting its uncertainty to carry it out in fear of potential international intervention. It describes Chinese armed forces as likely to be strained if they decide to launch an attack against Taiwan.

However, the DOD report states that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is already capable of conducting smaller military operations to annex parts of the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait. By doing so, it could begin to yield a territorial advantage.

In 2017, Taiwan released a national defense report, citing concerns of increased PLA military activity near Taiwan. Taiwan claimed that the increased activity posed an “enormous threat to security in the Taiwan Strait” and that Taiwan required a “multiple deterrence strategy” to counter PLA headway.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has continually pledged to maintain Taiwan’s current state in cross-Strait relations and called for China to respect Taiwan’s democracy.

Why is the South China Sea so contentious?

The South China Sea, which is home to vital shipping lanes and more than 250 islands and specks of land, acts as an opening to global sea routes where nearly US$3.4 trillion of trade passes annually. It also is home to the Paracels and the Spratlys, two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.

The DOD report states, “The South China Sea plays an important role in security considerations across East Asia because Northeast Asia relies heavily on the flow of oil and commerce through South China Sea shipping lanes, including more than 80 percent of the crude oil to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.”

As fears grow that the area is becoming the eye of tensions in the region, with significant global consequences likely, claims to the territory are increasingly disputed.

Beijing has staked claim to the largest region of the contested waters — known as the “nine-dash-line” and stretching hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan. China has declared that its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were considered key parts of the Chinese nation.

Taiwan makes the same territorial assertions as China.

Other nations — such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei — have also made claims to parts of the disputed waters.

Vietnam, for example, hotly disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. In fact, Vietnam claims that it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century and has documents that showcase their ownership.

Escalating tensions

Over the past 10 years, China has backed its expansive claims by conducting an island-building campaign of military installations in the South China Sea.

While this has appeared to much of the rest of the region to be a breach of territorial rights, China has doubled-down. According to US defense officials, China reportedly launched a series of ballistic missiles on August 26 into the South China Sea.

The missiles were believed to be part of a flood of military exercises, extending thousands of miles along the country’s coastline.

SCMP reports a source close to the Chinese military states that the two missiles — including an “aircraft-carrier killer” — were launched into the Sea in order to send a clear message to the US and its allies.

“This is China’s response to the potential risks brought by the increasingly frequent incoming US warplanes and military vessels in the South China Sea,” the source said. “China doesn’t want the neighbouring countries to misunderstand Beijing’s goals.”

In a statement on September 3, the Pentagon described the missiles as the latest in a string of actions intended to “assert unlawful maritime claims” that provoke China’s international neighbors.

Beijing announced the military drills but has not confirmed the allegations that it launched missiles in the disputed waters.

Just the previous day, China reported that a US U-2 spy plane had entered a no-fly zone in the Bohai Sea off the country’s north coast without permission while it was conducting a live-fire naval drill.

This is not the first time China has conducted missile tests in this manner.

In July 2019, China conducted a series of ballistic missile tests in the South China Sea, according to two US officials interviewed by CNN.

In response to the tests last year, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn commented, “What’s truly disturbing about this act is that it’s in direct contradiction to President Xi’s statement in the Rose Garden in 2015 when he pledged to the U.S., the Asia-Pacific region and the world that he would not militarize those man-made outposts.”

Hong Kong-based military analyst Song Zhongping stated, “The US continues to test China’s bottom line in Taiwan and South China Sea issues, and this pushed China to showcase its military strength to let Washington know that even US aircraft carriers cannot flex their full muscle near China’s coast.”

What does the US Department of Defense report say?

The DOD’s first annual report to Congress in 2000 described the PRC’s armed forces at that time as a notable, but mostly obsolete, military that did not befit the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) long-term ambitions.

The report recognized the CCP’s objective was for China to become a “strong, modernized, unified, and wealthy nation.”

Two decades later, the country’s objective has become more tangible. According to the new DOD report, China hopes to develop a “world-class” military by the end of 2049 — a goal first announced by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2017, though Xi did not detail what China deems a “world-class military.”

The unclassified report marks 2020 as “an important year for the People’s Liberation Army,” detailing a “basically” complete military modernization by 2035 and transformation of the PLA.

The CCP’s efforts to advance its overall development intensified in 2019, including steadying its economic growth, strengthening its armed forces and taking a more active role in global affairs.

To do this, China is pursuing the development of a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improving its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities. One of China’s primary focuses is increasing its control over the South China Sea.

According to Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, Wednesday’s missile tests showed a high level of sophistication, owing to the involvement of two separate military branches, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and its Strategic Rocket Force (SRF).

What does this mean for international relationships with China?

On November 22, 2019, Taiwan’s United Daily News detailed a visit from Heino Klinck, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, during the week of November 18.

The Taipei Times described it as the senior-most visit to Taiwan by a US Department of Defense official in over a decade, signaling a possible worsening of decadeslong tensions between Taiwan and China.

In the absence of a formal US defense treaty with Taipei (as with Tokyo and others), the US has supported Taiwan in developing and implementing The Overall Defense Concept (ODC), a concept first outlined in 2017 by Taiwan’s revered former Chief of General Staff, Retired Admiral Lee Hsi-Ming.

The ODC detailed efforts for Taiwan to tackle the threat of China’s growing military, representing a quintessential shift in Taiwan’s approach to its defense. It emphasized the development of irregular tactics to maximize Taiwan’s defensive edge, strengthen resilience and exploit China’s weaknesses.

Former US Defense Department official Drew Thompson described the concept as “a revolutionary new approach to Taiwan’s defense.”

Even with the heightened defense strategies, the Chinese military is a force to be reckoned with.

The PLA budget increased by an average of 10% per year from 2000 to 2016 and now receives about $200 billion a year in funding, equivalent to about 1.4% of China’s gross domestic product.

“In 2019, the PRC announced its annual military budget would increase by 6.2 percent, continuing more than 20 years of annual defense spending increased and sustaining its position as the second-largest military spender in the world,” cited the 2020 US report.

In a battle of warfare modernization, China is undeniably positioning itself as one of the foremost players in the region’s politics.

Originally published at on September 7, 2020.

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