How to Avoid a Sino-American War

BEIJING – In a few weeks time, senior US and Chinese leaders will sit down in Washington for their annual “strategic dialogue.” Given rising tensions in the South China Sea, that dialogue is taking on increasing importance.

In 2001, when an American EP-3 spy aircraft operating over the South China Sea collided with a Chinese air force interceptor jet near Hainan Island, Chinese and US leaders managed to defuse the situation and avoid a military confrontation. Today, such an incident in the South China Sea, where China and several southeast Asian countries have competing territorial claims, would almost certainly lead to an armed clash – one that could quickly escalate into open war.

Last month, at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security conference, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conveyed the deep apprehension of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations about the potential for an armed conflict between China and the United States. The good news is that US and Chinese representatives took the conference as an opportunity to signal subtly their willingness to ease tensions and continue to engage with each other.

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, in an effort to limit the scope for provocation, called on all claimants to territories in the South China Sea to stop island-building and land-reclamation efforts there. He also proposed a regional security architecture that gives all countries and people in the Asia-Pacific region the “right to rise.”