Some scenarios for the South China Sea in 2021




Asia Times

War is unlikely – but possible
US Navy FONOPs (freedom of navigation operations) in the South China Sea irritate China. Photo: US Naval Institute

It’s that time again when US administrations change and a plethora of foreign-policy pundits post proposals and predictions for the incoming administration. This time around a prominent topic is US-China policy and – in particular – US policy regarding the burgeoning US-China confrontation in the South China Sea.

Here is a spectrum of scenarios for the South China Sea in 2021, ranging from the worst to the best – and including the most likely.

The worst but least likely scenario is war. China and the US are locked in a seminal long-term struggle for dominance in Asia and the South China Sea. Their militaries are engaging in nearly continuous and sometimes competing shows of force there and some say these disputes will soon beget war.

Broad conflict is certainly possible. Indeed, there are many scenarios that could beckon the apocalyptic rider of the red horse. According to David Gompert, former deputy director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, “China could try to intimidate its neighbors below the threshold of US intervention and misjudge where that threshold is, or underestimate US willingness” to respond to what it perceives as a threat to its assets.

China already poses a formidable challenge in a conflict in its near waters in the South China Sea. It is making rapid progress in the application of military technology there. The US still has the technological edge but the “closer the Chinese come to thinking they can match the US, the closer we get to confrontation,” says Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House and author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.