In the realm of the US-China power struggle, the Taiwan Strait has long been regarded as the most likely hotspot for a potential war.

However, a notable Chinese military Retd, officer has offered a fresh perspective, suggesting that the actual catalyst for such a conflict could emerge from an entirely different region.

Zhou Bo, a former high-ranking colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and currently serving as a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy in Beijing, brings attention to the increasingly militarized South China Sea as a potential flashpoint.

Zhou’s captivating viewpoint centers around the escalating frequency of dangerously close encounters between naval and aerial forces in the South China Sea.

Within this context, he argues that the likelihood of conflict being triggered by an accident or miscalculation is significantly higher in this contested maritime region.

Unlike a potential war over Taiwan, where every word and action is meticulously scrutinized by both sides, Zhou asserts that the South China Sea presents a more volatile environment where unintended incidents could quickly escalate tensions to a boiling point.

By emphasizing this alternative perspective, Zhou challenges the prevailing narrative that exclusively focuses on the Taiwan Strait as the epicenter of potential conflict between the United States and China.

His insights invite a deeper analysis of the complex dynamics and risks associated with the militarization of the South China Sea. This perspective serves as a reminder that conflict triggers are not confined to predictable scenarios but can emerge unexpectedly from seemingly peripheral areas.

Understanding this broader context is crucial for comprehending the intricate nature of the US-China relationship and the potential pathways that could lead to confrontation.

Why The South China Sea?

The South China Sea has emerged as a significant theater for potential conflict between the United States and China, with both sides regularly deploying military assets to challenge each other’s territorial claims.

Zhou Bo, a respected expert on China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), draws attention to the inherent dangers of this tense situation, warning that an accident or miscalculation could serve as a trigger for a full-blown conflict between the two powers.

China asserts sovereignty over a vast portion of the resource-rich South China Sea, disregarding the involvement of non-claimant states, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan, in territorial disputes.

Zhou emphasizes that the key challenge for both China and the United States is to prevent a conflict that could potentially arise from a mere accident, rather than avoiding a new Cold War.

He underscores the need to recognize the gravity of close encounters, citing a recent incident where a Chinese fighter jet and a US Air Force reconnaissance aircraft came dangerously close to colliding over the South China Sea, narrowly averting a catastrophe.

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The incident mentioned by Zhou highlights the high-stakes nature of these encounters. Each side has exchanged accusations and justifications, with the Pentagon arguing that its aircraft was lawfully operating in international airspace while Beijing claimed that the US plane was conducting close-in reconnaissance near China’s southern coastline and its claimed islands in the Paracels.

As such incidents become more frequent, the risk of accidents with unintended and potentially severe consequences grows.

Zhou contends that there are established rules of behavior for the safety of air and maritime encounters, but he argues that American ships and aircraft are actively challenging China by entering the disputed waters.

The United States, in contrast, rejects China’s expansive territorial claims under the “nine-dash line” and supports the 2016 ruling of an arbitral tribunal, which deemed such claims to be in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The analysis by a former Chinese officer underscores the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, fueled by competing territorial claims and the presence of military forces from both the United States and China.

It serves as a reminder that accidents or miscalculations in this highly volatile region could rapidly escalate into a major conflict between the two powers. As such, it is crucial for all parties involved to exercise caution and explore diplomatic avenues to mitigate the risk of accidental confrontation and maintain regional stability.

Escalating Face-Off In The South China Sea

The tensions and close encounters in the South China Sea extend beyond the United States and China, involving other regional actors as well.

Recent incidents have highlighted the precarious nature of interactions in the disputed waters, with reports of near-collisions between Philippine and Chinese government vessels, including a Chinese naval vessel near the Spratly Islands.

Close encounters between China Coast Guard vessels and Vietnamese patrol vessels have also been documented.

The potential repercussions of these incidents have raised concerns among regional leaders, prompting calls for a renewed commitment to a rules-based order to guide maritime interactions.

Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen recently emphasized the importance of such an order in the maritime domain.

Chinese guided-missile frigate Anqing fires rocket-propelled depth charges during a maritime training exercise in late July 2021.

He specifically urged China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to conclude a substantive code of conduct based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Notably, negotiations for this code of conduct have been ongoing for two decades.

It is worth mentioning that while the United States itself has not ratified UNCLOS, the Pentagon has expressed its commitment to continuing its military operations in the disputed areas to safeguard the freedom of the seas, including navigation and overflight, and to counter what it perceives as unlawful and sweeping maritime claims.

Thus, the multifaceted nature of the tensions in the South China Sea extends beyond the U.S.-China dynamic and involves regional actors as well. It underscores the need for a rules-based order to prevent potentially dangerous incidents and maintain stability in the region.

The ongoing efforts to establish a substantive code of conduct between China and ASEAN based on UNCLOS reflect the recognition of the importance of a framework that can govern interactions and reduce the risk of miscalculations or accidental conflicts.

Such developments will be crucial in promoting dialogue and cooperation among all stakeholders involved in the South China Sea, as they seek to balance their respective interests and maintain peace and security in the region.

By Abhyoday Sisodia

Author is a journalist specializing in international relations with extensive experience working with online media. He has a keen interest in all things geopolitics and thence enjoys writing on issues pertaining to Foreign Policy, International Relations, Strategic and Security Affairs of Indo-Pacific Region.

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