US-China tensions, with the Philippines caught in the precarious middle, may be heading towards a “1914” moment in the disputed waters.

China’s announcement of its intention to enforce a law that would arrest foreign citizens who venture into the waters it claims in the South China Sea (SCS) could be the trigger for a direct military confrontation with the United States. The regulation, known as Administrative Law Enforcement Procedures for Coast Guard Agencies, will take effect on June 15, 2024.

Violent incidents between US ally the Philippines and China have been on the rise in recent months. Dramatic footage from Britain’s Sky News showed several large Chinese Coast Guard ships attacking a smaller Philippine Coast Guard vessel with powerful water cannons in disputed waters around Scarborough Shoal.

Shortly before, US President Joe Biden met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington DC to discuss regional security. Biden asserted “firm” support for the Philippines under the auspices of their mutual defense treaty, including the protection of coast guard ships that are under armed attack in the South China Sea.

Since the treaty requires that an “armed” attack be reported to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the first instance, China’s use of water cannons, although potentially lethal, has to date not been interpreted as such. Certainly, the Philippines did not submit to the UNSC a report of the incident filmed by Sky News.

However, at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue in Singapore held in late May, Marcos stated: “If a Filipino citizen was killed by an intentional act, that is very close to what we define as an act of war. Is this a red line? Almost certainly.”

This red line will become even redder from June 15th, as any arrests made under China’s enforcement of the new law will likely be carried out at gunpoint, increasing the risks of a deadly incident .

Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos Jr sees red lines in the South China Sea. Image: Twitter

Marcos Jr characterized China’s enforcement of the law as “escalated” and “different” from anything Beijing had previously imposed in the contested and strategic maritime region, of which China claims almost 90% under its nine-dash line.

If Manila were forced to invoke its mutual defense treaty to obtain American assistance, it would not be difficult to imagine that Chinese coast guard vessels would quickly be confronted by US warships currently patrolling the region to enforce freedom of navigation.

Biden would probably have to answer affirmatively in that case, otherwise he would risk concerns from already nervous American allies with whom Washington has formal security pacts – namely the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Furthermore, underlining Washington’s focus on the Indo-Pacific at a time of rising tensions in the South China Sea, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared at the Singapore Shangri-la Dialogue that “despite these historic confrontations in Europe and in the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific remains our priority theater of operations.”

In turn, Chinese Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng responded dismissively that the US Indo-Pacific strategy was intended to “create division, provoke clashes and undermine stability”.

In light of Austin’s sharp reorientation in the Indo-Pacific, it seems likely that any request for U.S. military assistance from the Philippines would be viewed positively in Washington, likely gaining overwhelming bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Interestingly, one of Washington’s most loyal allies, the United Kingdom, with significant naval assets deployed in the South China Sea, may be preparing for such an eventuality.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s sudden and unexpected announcement of a July 4 election date – at the very least signifying Britain’s shared interests with America’s on its Independence Day – came in conjunction with a proposed national service, ostensibly in preparation for war and possibly particularly in the South China Sea.

In addition to the disastrous global financial and economic shockwaves that are likely to arise from any direct military confrontation between the US and China, this could be a conflict that Washington is preparing for, subject to one main constraining factor: any confrontation Direct military action will be contained exclusively in South China. Maritime region.

It may not be such an unlikely scenario when one considers the Korean War of 1950-53. During this conflict, approximately two million US troops fought fierce battles against three million Chinese soldiers and 100,000 Soviet soldiers, alongside their respective South and North Korean allies.

However, it was a conflict contained by the then leaders of the USA, China and the Soviet Union, Truman, Mao and Stalin, respectively, within the territorial limits of the Korean Peninsula, deliberately avoiding repercussions in the broader global context of the then young Cold War.

Let us hope that ongoing diplomacy in various areas of cooperation between the US and China prevails and that a direct military conflict, including a limited theater of war, is avoided. But a peaceful outcome should not be taken for granted.

Tensions in the South China Sea, not to mention neighboring Taiwan, rise almost daily. Trade frictions between Beijing and Washington are also rising, with increasing sanctions on US technology exports to China, amid new punitive tariffs on imports of Chinese green technology, including electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, accusations about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine appear to be intensifying in Western circles. These include the UK Defense Secretary’s still unsubstantiated claims about direct Chinese military supplies to Russia

Furthermore, US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell stated that Chinese support was effectively rebuilding Russia’s military in the form of drones, artillery, long-range missiles and tracking movements on the battlefield.

“This is a sustained and comprehensive effort, supported by the leadership in China, that aims to give Russia full behind-the-scenes support,” Campbell said during a visit to Brussels in late May.

One cannot simply ignore the emerging dangers of US-China rivalry on multiple fronts, as they did in the run-up to World War I, as European powers fought for supremacy on the continent.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship uses water cannons on a supply boat operated by the Philippine Navy as it approaches the Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed South China Sea on December 10, 2023. Photo: Philippine Coast Guard

In today’s equally polarized and militarized environment, it is vitally important to identify and calm any potential trigger points, accidental or otherwise, that could explode into a catastrophic and overwhelming regional conflict.

The trigger for the First World War occurred on June 28, 1914, with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in a country in southeastern Europe. This time, the trigger could be the death of a Filipino sailor in the tropical waters of Southeast Asia.

The US and China must ensure that they do not sleepwalk into a repeat of the 1914 tragedy in the second half of June 2024 or, indeed, at any time in the future.

By Bob Savic, Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute, London, UK and Visiting Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, University of Nottingham, UK. Via Asia Times.


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