On May 17, 2016, a U.S. patrol plane, conducting a routine patrol over international airspace, was intercepted by two Chinese fighter jets near the Hainan Island, off the southern coast of China. According to the Pentagon’s initial reports, the Chinese fighter jets conducted an ‘unsafe’ interception of the U.S. patrol plane, forcing the U.S. pilot to descend 200ft (60m) to avoid a mid-air collision. However, later on Thursday, Hong Lei from the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied any U.S. allegations, asserting that, "the US plane flew close to Hainan Island. Two Chinese aircraft followed and monitored at a safe distance. There were no dangerous maneuvers from the Chinese aircraft. Their actions were completely professional and safe." While the U.S. Department of Defense is said to be addressing this incident through diplomatic and military channels, Washington has accused Beijing of militarizing the South China Sea. In turn, Beijing severely criticized the increase of U.S. navy patrols and exercises in the region. Daniel Kim offers a larger analysis into this current situation
This incident seems to have broken the positive trend over the last year regarding Chinese ‘safe and professional’ international airspace practices. The encounter has been the latest in a series of troubling incidents between U.S. and Chinese military aircrafts and ships in the South China Sea. In 2001, a similar incident occurred between a U.S. Navy P-3 patrol plane and Chinese fighter pilots which resulted in a mid-air collision that lead to the death of one Chinese pilot.
The South China Sea territory has been a polemic topic for centuries, now more important than ever as tensions escalate. While the South China Sea is an economic asset acting as a critical shipping route with access to reserves of obtainable natural resources, there also is a cultural and historical aspect to this region that makes it such a heated topic. Today, China has claimed a large portion of the territory, denoted by the red hashed line in the map above, as its own. According to Chinese history, the Paracel and Spratly chain of islands, located within the South China Sea, has always been a part of the Chinese nation after a map created in 1947 was released corroborating these claims. However, other nations within the region, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, vehemently dispute this claim, instead asserting geographical proximity as the basis for their own territorial claims. The blue hashed line denotes various nations’ geographical claims to the region.
In more recent years, China has been backing its regional claims by developing islets into military bases within parts of major waterways. This has resulted in the high levels of tension observed between the U.S. and China. In a recent interview with Herbert Carlisle, a U.S. Air Force General, he stated, “If [China] continue[s] to become more and more aggressive, the potential (exists) for a miscalculation or a safety incident,” Carlisle said. “We’ve worked hard to prevent another P-3 and Hainan island situation (referring to the 2001 incident). We’ve seen some of their aggressive maneuvers against our aircraft that are operating in international airspace. That’s dangerous. And there’s the potential miscalculation or some kind of safety incident that could potentially spiral into a very bad situation.” This dispute has sparked worldwide concern as tensions escalate with a potential for global economic and political consequences. First and foremost, the world economy will in many ways be impacted by this predicament if conditions further deteriorate. According to a 2009 study conducted by Clive Schofield and Ian Storey, “The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes, Rising Tensions”, approximately one third of world trade moves through the South China Sea. Additionally, 50 percent of Asia’s total oil supply and 80 percent of Asia’s strategic goods pass through the South China Sea (China Business - Philippines, 2011). Based on trade alone, a future crisis such as a military blockade in the region would completely devastate not only Asians economies, but also the global economy. Secondly, business owners in oil and energy industry have large stakes in this situation which have a high potential of being impacted negatively. As the South China Sea holds, “proven oil reserves of at least seven billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas” (according to the World Bank) any disruption in the Asian political sphere would halt major energy companies conducting offshore drilling operations.
In order to prevent an escalation of tension, there must be an open line of communication and progress to create a multilateral diplomatic discussion between all affected nations, or perhaps within the United Nations, to come to terms with this territorial dispute.