Tensions in the South China Sea have been rising steadily in recent years, thanks to China’s declared sovereignty over the entirety of the massive waterway, despite competing claims from no fewer than five other nations with established international norms on their side. The United States, in particular, has taken issue with China’s claimed ownership of areas deemed by the global community to be international waters that any vessel has legal right to traverse.
As China has moved to militarize the vast open space of the South China Sea through a rapidly expanding navy and the construction and militarization of artificial islands, the United States has moved to strengthen alliances and formal relationships with other nations affected by China’s territorial policies, as well as beginning to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPs, which entails sailing American warships through international waters the Chinese claim ownership over.
These operations are always contested in some way by the Chinese, most often through strongly worded statements, but as tensions have continued to increase between China and the United States, so too have the stakes when the two nations’ navies interact on the high seas.
In September, the Arleigh Burke-Class guided missile destroy USS Decatur’s FONOP took it to within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratley Islands — an island chain the Chinese have been building up and militarizing for the better part of two years. In response, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s destroyer Luoyang intercepted the Decatur and nearly collided with it as the two ships refused to back down.
At the time, this incident was seen as the most brazen Chinese attempt at enforcing claims over the South China Sea that the United States contend are illegal — but if one senior ranking Chinese official has his way, it was nothing but a precursor of things to come.
“If the U.S. warships break into Chinese waters again, I suggest that two warships should be sent: one to stop it, and another one to ram it,” said Dai Xu, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLA-AF) senior colonel and president of the Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation. “In our territorial waters, we won’t allow US warships to create disturbance.”
Dai’s statements, which were made at a media conference, hit the press by way of China’s state-owned Global Times. The newspaper itself is no stranger to inciting controversy with its stories, but it is unusual for a senior military official to make public statements about engaging in activities that could easily be considered acts of war against the largest, most powerful Navy on the planet — not to mention an economy China relies on for export sales. However, Dai didn’t stop there.
“It would boost the speed of our unification of Taiwan,” he continued. “Let’s just be prepared and wait. Once a strategic opportunity emerges, we should be ready to take over Taiwan.”
It would seem, then, that Dai believes China should use America’s FONOP voyages as a pretense for war not only with the United States, but also with Taiwan. Of course, despite China’s rapid military expansion and reorganization, it’s extremely unlikely that the nation could field a sufficient force for such an endeavor — and, it’s important to note, China’s military lacks any real experience in modern warfare, so even as their technological capabilities grow, it will be some time before China’s military represents a real threat. Discussion of a Chinese military threat, at this point, is primarily in terms of a future conflict, as China is rapidly moving to make their military a formidable enough presence in the region that even America can’t deter them.
For now, however unlikely war may seem, the rhetoric from Chinese military officials must be considered as the two most powerful economies in the world attempt to determine if this world is big enough for the two of them.