On Oct. 7, Donald Trump, fresh out of a multi-day hospital stay with COVID-19 and after multiple reports had described the White House as a coronavirus hotspot, said he will “make China pay.”
“This is China’s fault. Just remember that,” he said.
Just a day earlier, China told the United States to end its “Cold War mentality.”
Since COVID-19 emerged in China in November 2019, senior officials in both countries have increasingly upped the ante with their words of war, alongside military moves and countermoves. The epicenter of those tensions lies in the South China Sea, a body of water double the size of the Gulf of Mexico touching 10 countries’ shores that extends south of China, east and south of Vietnam, and west of the Philippines.
Much of the antipathy between the two countries in recent weeks is driven by the Trump administration drawing Taiwan, the island off the southeast coast of China and on the northeastern edge of the South China Sea, which China considers its own under the One-China policy, closer to its orbit. On Aug. 10, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azhar made the highest level diplomatic visit to Taiwan since 1979. China has responded to this and other recent friendly overtures toward Taiwan by the US State Department by airing advertisements showing how China would react “if war broke out today.” The ads depict China launching missiles toward adversarial parties.
The United States announced this month it will soon begin military drills with Japan off the country’s coast, involving 46,000 troops between both countries. China has responded by building three massive aircraft carriers, one of them on a six-month timeline, described by the publication Stars and Stripes as a haste paralleling World War II weapons production.
Symbolizing the growing gulf between the countries, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a July 7 speech that the Pentagon had created a China Strategy Management Group, calling China the top threat to US global hegemony. Further, the “National Defense University [would] refocus its curriculum by dedicating 50% of the coursework to [China].”
This complex geopolitical dispute in the South China Sea has left Chinese leadership worried and on alert that Trump may use war as an October Surprise in the weeks before Election Day.
To help us understand the conflict, some more of the recent history, and how bad this conflict might get, The Real News Network spoke to Professor Peter Layton. Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Asia Institute at the Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank. He is a retired group captain of the Royal Australian Air Force and formerly worked as a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.
Our conversation with Layton took place on Sept. 29. The transcript is edited for clarity and flow.
Andrew Corkery: Thanks for joining us, Professor Layton. We really appreciate it. First things first. Why is this region of the South China Sea so incredibly important as a unit of geopolitical contestation for the US/NATO and China?
Peter Layton: The South China Sea tends to be a fairly complicated region. There are 10 regional nations, all of them claiming the same piece of the sea, basically. So we have those particular regional factors playing out. There’s some extra regional factors turning up now as well. In particular, the US, which has certainly been present in the South China Sea for a long time. But over the last few years, it has become much more interesting. And as you hinted at there, the Europeans are certainly getting interested now as well.
Principally governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, over the last month or so, several European nations, the US and Australia and Japan have asked China to abide by the International Law of the Sea based on a 2016 international arbitration court ruling. That court ruled that China should withdraw from the South China Sea and withdraw all of its territorial claims. China claims about three quarters of the South China Sea now and has built islands to enforce its claims. Asking China to withdraw now certainly gives China some serious problems.
So, I suppose there’s been all this sudden surge of activity on the legal front. But also in the real world there is significant fishing going on in the South China Sea, by all regional nations, and there is also a fair bit of oil and gas exploration going on. And the principal problem there, of course, is that seeing that there are 10 nations feuding over the South China Sea, and who controls which parts of it, no oil company will invest that much money into putting oil derricks out there because its legal status is uncertain.
Steve Horn: Let’s back it up now to the history here and how it relates to the present day issues in the South China Sea. When is it that and how is it that China really became a powerful military presence in the South China Sea region?
Layton: Really, towards the end of the Cold War, all the regional nations were having minor disputes over the various islands and reefs, and there were a small number of islands at the time. And generally speaking, it was certainly countries being irritable against one another. The exception, of course, was the Chinese taking from Vietnam, a reef in the Spratly Islands in the southern portion of the South China Sea. And there were certainly Islands there. And the Chinese killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers.
One of the Spratly Islands off the coast of Philippines occupied by the Chinese military. Tony Peters/Flickr
Then things went quiet during the 1990s. In the 2000s, things gradually changed. China became much more interested in the South China Sea, and in particular, in fishing and oil. Nonetheless, China was still peaceful, and in general, obeying the Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, in 2012 with the rise of Xi Jinping, China went from being relatively peaceful to being very assertive.
And in particular, through the building of the various artificial islands in the southern part of the South China Sea. These islands that they built are large and they would be extremely costly. There is no rational basis for rebuilding them except as a territorial grab.
While there are certainly valuable fishing stocks and there could be valuable oil and gas there, if you look at the cost of the islands, it has outweighed the monetary value of what China gets from them being in the South China Sea. So China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea has been governed more by geostrategic factors than by economic factors, let us say. Certainly fisheries and oil are important, but they’re secondary factors for China in the sea.
Now, over the last couple of years, especially since COVID-19, China has continued getting more and more assertive, and there’s now concerns that China might start getting aggressive and start using more and more force. Over the last decade, there have been several incidents where China has arrested fishing boats and has pushed away and been relatively violent towards other nations’ coast guard ships.
At the present time, though there’s been increasing US interest, and over the last couple of years, those larger regional nations (US, EU, and NATO) have entered the dispute on the smaller nations’ side (Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, etc.) against China. So, the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbors has taken on an international dimension.
In response, the US and the Europeans and Australians, the Japanese, etc., have become more assertive as well. They’ve started to take diplomatic action to try and raise the cost of Chinese actions in the South China Sea. In particular, the US has been sailing ships through there over the last three or four years. And there’s more and more naval ships, which have been passing through freedom of navigation movements through that area.
So, I suppose the history the last 10 years has been getting more and more tense. And at this particular time, it is quite tense. And the trend line appears quite worrying. At this stage there are more and more countries getting involved. There are more and more warships and Coast Guards being deployed in the region, with the chances of an accident and something getting out of control escalating month by month.
Corkery: So, we discovered you and your analysis via a September 1st Reuters article in which you contributed quotes. That piece outlines how since January of this year, American B-1B and B-52 bombers have flown upwards of 20 missions over key waterways, including the South China Sea. In addition, according to an article in Military Times, “Pentagon war planners can envision a conflict with China starting in any number of ways.”
Corkery: Given that, do you believe President Trump could be planning for the possibility of some sort of show of military force in the South China Sea as an October Surprise?
Layton: Okay, let’s break that down. So one of the things that has happened over the last decade has been that China, surprisingly, has decided that the South China Sea is a “core interest.” That means they have said they will fight to keep the South China Sea.
This has been a major ramp up, because previously they have simply said that parts of mainland China are a “core interest.” For example, Tibet used to be a semi-independent country, but is now part of China. That’s a “core interest” for China. By making the South China Sea a “core interest,” China has to raise the stakes in the geostrategic realm. [Note: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also described the sea as a “national interest” of the US in a 2010 speech in Vietnam.]
They use those words very, very carefully. They have also proprojected that into their domestic audience, as well through the state media. So, their domestic audience expects China will be strong in the South China Sea and will not suddenly withdraw and give up these brand new Islands that they have built.
In the northern part of the South China Sea, Taiwan claims one island, as well the Pratas Islands. Now, that is a fairly small set of Islands with a small airstrip and a small number of Taiwanese military troops. It’s principally a tourist area, with snorkeling and fishing there, etc. The island is, though, very exposed from a military point of view.
So there is a possibility though that, given the Chinese saber rattling around Taiwan at the present time, that sometime in October, the Chinese may move to attack that particular Island. While China taking on the Taiwanese military would present China with immense problems and be a public relations disaster, let us say, taking a small island in the northern part of the south of the South China Sea might please the Chinese public and show that China’s tough and be an October Surprise for Donald Trump. So, if there was going to be an October Surprise in the South China Sea, I’d see something around that particular Taiwanese island as the most likely flashpoint.
Corkery: When you spoke to Reuters last month, you talked about how it might be impossible to fight a limited conflict in the South China Sea.
You said: “It is not like fighting Saddam Hussein, it would be a major world war … Both sides have nuclear weapons and there is the potential for escalation. If either side is losing, what is going to happen then?”
Could you expand further on this analysis?
Layton: Right. I think where there’s a disconnect here is that the US thinks that limited wars are possible. Now, limited wars have a long history going back to the Cold War, with the US and Soviet Union fighting what were known as “small wars.” For example, the wars during that time period in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But there was an assumption that both superpowers wouldn’t fight each other directly and that they would only fight through proxy forces that are limited in a geographical sense and sometimes limited for certain periods of time.
But, China is taking this seriously in thinking that this is a matter of key national importance. And the US thinks that it is possible that they might be able to fight a limited war. The two viewpoints of both countries are totally incompatible. Whereas for the US, this will be at most a marginal conflict, the Chinese could be expected to use everything they have in their inventory to make sure that they give US forces a bloody nose and prove to the world they are a superpower on the rise.
So, that is where the particular problem about nuclear war comes up. Let us assume that either side loses and loses badly militarily with their respective navies in the South China Sea. And when you start losing badly in the wars at sea, and ships start sinking, you can have people killed in the order of thousands very, very quickly. So passions can escalate exponentially. That is precisely where the dangers of a conflict between the US and China in the South China Sea arise.
Corkery: Finally, just to get further clarification on this. Do you think that there’s some legitimacy to the idea of using China as an October Surprise, given how down Trump is even in many of the swing state election polls?
Layton: Now, there’s a number of ways and looking at that. And if I put my military hat on for us for a second. China and Russia place great value on being misleading and deceiving people about where they’re actually doing things. And so, when they make a lot of noise somewhere, it’s always worthwhile to see whether they’re actually concerned about that particular problem. Or, are they actually really doing something much more interesting in some other region?
For example, in the East China Sea, China has moved their coast guard ships into the Senkaku Islands, which Japan claims rights to on a regular basis, and now the Chinese coast guard is staying there. That is one area where you could see an October Surprise, if the Japanese and the American ships decided they would try and push and shove those Chinese coast guard ships out of the Senkaku Islands area. That would be something that could happen relatively quickly, relatively easy, and be eye catching. Wouldn’t necessarily lead to a military conflict. But it would lead to a bunch of media clips and ramp up attention.
You have to think that if the Chinese want to mount an October Surprise of their own—either in response to Trump or on their own volition—then taking the small Taiwanese-claimed Pratas Islands in the northern part of the South China Sea would be their move. That’s where they have all the advantages, and the US has absolutely none. So, you could get both nations mounting an October Surprise. Both in the different areas, both being happy, but both causing an awful lot of international tensions and media surprise.