These are the elements of a military free-for-all in the South China Sea
The ruling by a tribunal in The Hague against China’s claims in the South China Sea has brought what has to be the world’s hottest maritime flashpoint to the headlines. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and the Republic of China all have claims of one sort or another.
Japan and South Korea both have huge stakes in the South China Sea. Japan has its own territorial dispute with the PRC (over the Senkaku Islands), while South Korea shares a peninsula with North Korea, a nation that is not exactly the most… rational actor on the world stage, and which counts the PRC as one of its friends, insofar as it is possible for Kim Jong-Un to have friends. In addition, the South China Sea is the body of water that oil tankers have to pass through in order to deliver their cargo to those countries. Japan, as students of history will remember, has been very sensitive to a threat to its access to oil imports.
To say that the tribunal’s ruling earlier this week was unfavorable to the PRC is an understatement. The 501-page ruling in favor of the Philippines not only declared the PRC’s “nine-dash line” invalid, but it also condemned the construction of the artificial island on Mischief Reef, and the PRC’s interference with Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal.
That said, the tribunal has no means to enforce the ruling, one that the PRC has rejected out of hand. The recent commissioning of the Yinchuan, the latest Lyuang III-class destroyer, means that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has 18 modern destroyers (four Luyang III, six Luyang II, two Luyang I, two Luzhou class, and four Sovremennyy-class – with eight Lyuang III and at least one new Type 55 class destroyer under construction). With the exception of the Republic of China, none of the other countries with claims in the South China Sea have destroyers, and Taiwan only has four Kidd-class destroyers. The PLAN and People’s Liberation Army Air Force also have substantial air assets in the region, including H-6 bombers, J-11, J-15, J-10, Su-30MKK, J-16, and JH-7 fighters.
While the Philippines have won their case, it now remains a very open question as to whether or not that win will matter. The PRC is considering establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone, which allows them to impose conditions on aircraft. Furthermore, it can back up those requirements by launching fighters to intercept. A U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance aircraft had a close call this past May with a J-11 – hearkening back to when a J-8 “Finback” collided with another EP-3E fifteen years earlier, and in 2014, a P-8 Poseidon saw a J-11 come within 20 feet.
More ominously, hours before the ruling, a Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk, and the PRC obstructed rescue efforts for several hours. A similar incident could well be the spark that touches off a massive air and naval free-for-all in the South China Sea.