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Territorial dispute between China, American allies could hit Washingtonians in the wallet

A crane moves a shipping container in the container pool of a seaport in Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province Tuesday, October 13, 2015. (FILE - AP Image)

How small has the world become?

It’s so small that a simmering territorial dispute between China and a number of American allies 5,000 miles from Seattle could hit Washington residents right in the wallet.

Or worse.

Conflicting claims increase the risk of confrontation

The dispute involves China’s claim over most of the China Sea, including waters claimed by Japan in the eastern part of the sea, and by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam to the south. It’s an area rich in natural resources, including fish, oil and minerals. They are resources each country claims as its own. It’s also a major shipping channel, through which $5 trillion worth of goods pass each year.

LISTEN: National Committee on US-China Relations podcast presenting both sides of the South China Sea dispute.

To bolster its assertion over the disputed waters, China has embarked on a unique strategy: building islands of sand where no islands existed before. Upon these manmade islands, China has built sophisticated radar installations, ports for servicing its navy and airfields from which it can launch surveillance and combat flights.

“The South China Sea has become home to the world’s most complicated territorial dispute,” says M. Taylor Fravel, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is also a member of the Security Studies Program. “Five states have competing claims of sovereignty over some or all of the (South China Sea’s) islands, rocks and reefs. Six states have claims to maritime jurisdiction.”

“It will certainly intensify conflict and even confrontation,” said China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tankui, during a speech delivered recently in Washington, D.C.

[This map depicts often confusing and tense situation surrounding conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. More information on the dispute can be found at http://www.southchinasea.org/]

The Philippines, chose a tact much different than China’s. One of the United States’ closest allies in the region, the Philippines took China to court. In a binding and final ruling issued July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is based in The Hague, declared most of China’s claims in the South China Sea were invalid. The manmade islands are not true territory which can be disputed, according to the Tribunal – instead, they are rocks in the water that cannot be claimed by any country. And the military installations China has built on those islands, the Court ruled, are illegal.

RELATED: Read the entire 500-page verdict from the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the conflicting claims of China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

It was a remarkable and conclusive victory for Manila. But it rings hollow because Beijing refuses to acknowledge the validity of the verdict or even the court itself. The international tension in the South China Sea suddenly threatened to boil over into international confrontation and perhaps even armed conflict.

LISTEN: US surveillance planes are repeatedly challenged by Chinese naval forces in the disputed area of the South China Sea where China has built military installations on manmade islands.

But the region has not exploded in conflict as many analysts have predicted, although the US and Chinese navies continue to intensely shadow each other. There are close calls between both naval vessels, patrol planes and helicopters as the two countries play a dangerous game of brinksmanship. While neither is willing to escalate the situation, neither appears willing to back down, according to University of Washington Professor David Bachman, who holds the Henry M. Jackson Chair in the School of International Studies. He is also an acknowledged authority on relations between the US and China.

“Leaders on both sides understand the economic interdependence we share with China. They also realize the cost of conflict,” he said. While interdependence is no guarantee against escalating tensions or even an armed outbreak between the two nations, “It’s a real force between ordinary Americans and Chinese. And that’s a check against relations turning too sour.”

A Unique Relationship

China and the United States have a relationship Bachman calls unique in the annals of diplomacy. Even as the two countries stand toe-to-toe as adversaries in the Pacific, where China has long resented America’s military and political dominance, Beijing and Washington have a codependent and complex economic relationship.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Washington, in so many ways closer to China than any other state in the US. According to the Washington State China Relations Council, Washington has more at stake in maintaining good ties to China than any other state in the nation.

  • China is Washington’s biggest trading partner. In 2014 alone, that amounted to more than $29 billion.
  • Washington exports more to China than any other state.
  • Washington is the most trade dependent state in America. As a result, more jobs in this state are tied to maintaining good relations with the People’s Republic of China.
  • Travel from Washington ports to Asian markets is approximately 30 hours faster than from any other state on the US West Coast.

As a result of this unique relationship, Washington is more susceptible to variances in relations between the US and China, said Bachman. Those relations appear to be at a tipping point.

LISTEN: KOMO’s Pete Combs reports on the origins of the simmering dispute between the US and China and how a disruption of trade might impact Seattle, Tacoma and the rest of Washington state.

“For instance, after that decision from the court at The Hague, Chinese citizens said they wanted to boycott Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s restaurants. They wanted to leave American goods on the shelves because they believed the US was encouraging the Philippines in its dispute with China,” Bachman pointed out.

If relations between the two superpowers were to go sour, he said, it would have a progressive effect on the economy here in Washington. “For example, the government in Beijing would feel compelled to curtail ties with Boeing. The Chinese would feel less compelled to crack down on theft of intellectual property from Microsoft,” Bachman said.

“If the situation grew much worse, a much more complete interruption of US-China trade would not be impossible to imagine,” he added.

LISTEN: KOMO’s Pete Combs interviews University of Washington Professor David Bachman, an acknowledged expert on US-China relations.

The (Not So Likely) Worst Case Scenario

Bachman pointed out repeatedly that the US and China are nowhere near a worst-case scenario. But he also pointed out that accidents can happen and when they do, there is seldom any way to predict how they start or what ends up happening as a result. While the US and China have exceedingly professional militaries, some of the smaller stakeholders in the South China Sea controversy do not. Bachman believes an incident between China and one of the American allies in the region could become a flash-point for wider conflict.

“Accidents happen all the time,” remarked Bachman. “It could happen imminently. It might never happen. Accidents are inherently unpredictable except to say that ultimately, there will be one.”

What would a wider conflict with China look like?

Bachman and others envision a conflict that slowly spirals out of control in a tit-for-tat cycle that could first affect the massive trade between the US and China. As the situation crumbles, there could be military clashes in the China Sea. Could that lead to the ultimate shooting war – one that involves nuclear weapons?

What about the possibility of a nuclear attack? As a Chinese general once famously warned about American intervention should Mainland China attack Taiwan, “You care more about Los Angeles than Taipei,” a hint that the People’s Republic might not hesitate to use its small fleet of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

It is here that Bachman and other analysts believe western Washington is most vulnerable. Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the Naval stations at Bangor and Whidbey would almost certainly be targeted in a Chinese nuclear attack, given their strategic importance in any shooting war that might develop between the US and China.

“It would be the ultimate disaster,” Bachman noted. “You could certainly envision the use of nuclear weapons against targets in the Pacific Northwest.”

But Bachman is quick to discount the possibility. China, he points out, has a limited arsenal of nuclear weapons. The United States has a missile defense system, but its effectiveness is still questionable. Still, that “spotty” capability, as he calls it, may be enough to deter the nuclear weapons aimed at western Washington.

“I don’t see a nuclear attack stemming from this,” said Grays Harbor County Deputy Emergency Management Director Charles Wallace. “In any case, nobody here is ready for that and they’re not likely to be. People wonder why they should they prepare? They won’t be around anyway.”

However, if the conflict continues to escalate from where it stands today, Bachman and Wallace believe it is much more likely the conflict would move into cyberspace. While much recent attention has been focused on the cyberwarfare capabilities of Chinese (and Russian) hackers – capabilities that, in both cases, have improved dynamically – Bachman sees the US cyberwar capability as being even more robust.

“We usually acknowledge when we’ve been hacked. China never does. How thoroughly they’ve been penetrated is an open question, but I think it’s quite thoroughly,” he said, pointing to the joint US and Israeli hacking of Iranian nuclear development systems as an example. “The question is, are our capabilities enough to pre-empt or defend against an attack by China.”

Such a cyber-attack would almost certainly be aimed at critical infrastructure such as power grids or financial institutions in ways Bachman believes would “make the way we live today… very difficult.”

On that, Wallace wholeheartedly concurs.

Consider if Seattle were to come under cyber-attack. It could cripple banks, shut down power grids, turn off natural gas and even play havoc with the area’s many drawbridges.

“What then? You’ll have to bring in food and other goods. And if it affects your power grid, there’s no way to pump gas. Without refrigeration or fuel, how long can people hang on?”

The answer is crucial because recovery from a cyberattack could take months, Wallace said. And yet, Wallace doesn’t think the US is any more ready for a devastating cyber-attack than it is for nuclear war.

The More Likely Scenario

The likelihood of mutual assured destruction both in the real world and the cyber world combined with the tremendous amount of economic interdependence between the US and China make a wide outbreak of hostilities between the US and China much less likely. That, said Bachman, is thanks to people power.

“The Americans and the Chinese have people-to-people contacts that the US never had with the former Soviet Union,” Bachman explained. “Those are tremendous checks should things between governments turn sour.”

He pointed to ongoing diplomatic efforts at the state level as well as continued collaboration between US and Chinese military officers which recently brought a number of Chinese officers to US military bases like JBLM.

“There have been no new acts of provocation. All sides are acting with circumspection. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Asia and National Security Advisor Susan Rice is in China right now,” said Bachman. “There are ongoing efforts on all sides to encourage talks rather than conflict.”

Still, he said, it’s a situation that bears close watching from all sides.

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