Wars are not always intentional. An article in the US journal, Foreign Policy, last year on how war could start on the Korean peninsula is relevant to other conflicts as well. "There is no single red line that, when crossed, would trigger war, but the potential for miscalculation and escalation is high," the article argued. One obvious danger is that it is "easier to start a war than to stop one", not least because belligerents could broaden their strategic goals once a conflict has begun.
These warnings are applicable to the South China Sea as well. The reported ramming of Vietnamese patrol ships by Chinese vessels, which turned water cannon on them, is precisely the kind of provocation that could escalate into something far bigger than what the assertive side intends. In this case, Beijing sent a clear message on its determination to relocate a drilling rig in a contested corner of the South China Sea, closer to the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China and claimed by Vietnam. Beijing also countered Hanoi's accusations with its own charges of Vietnamese ships ramming Chinese vessels. The Chinese attempt to play down the incident as not amounting to a clash is an exercise in semantics and not diplomacy.
Diplomacy is the key quality expected of all claimants in a maritime dispute that is a matter of international concern because of its potential to disrupt freedom of navigation. Miscalculating the response of the other side could initiate a spiral of escalation that would become difficult to stop given the strategic stakes involved. This is also true of the East China Sea dispute, where nationalist fervour in China and Japan could drive political leaders into adopting positions that would become matters of strategic regret later.
On the South China Sea issue, Beijing should not ignore the balanced call made at the ASEAN Summit for all parties to refrain from taking actions that would escalate tensions further. Beijing's characterisation of the South China Sea issue as one which one or two countries are using to harm ASEAN's ties with China, obscures the reality of conflict brewing on the doorstep of ASEAN. While the group does not take a position on the merits of the contending claims, it cannot be oblivious to the security implications of the dispute.
Swifter progress in crafting a code of conduct in the South China Sea, and the peaceful resolution of the territorial spats would be to everyone's benefit. In calling for these, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam and his US counterpart John Kerry have underlined just how important it is for countries to get back on track. Not believing that war is possible could be the greatest strategic obstacle and potential blunder.
This article was published on May 15 in The Straits Times.
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