It’s easy to imagine an even more serious confrontation in the SCS. Another accidental collision would be bad enough, but if a scenario developed similar to that of the downing of KAL 007, with a Chinese fighter jock actually opening fire on an American plane, the situation could get ugly very quickly.
And if an American pilot fired upon a Chinese plane, the reaction of the Chinese public could become too much for Beijing to reasonably handle.
Neither China nor the United States want war, at least not in the near future. China’s military buildup notwithstanding, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its components are not ready to fight the United States. The U.S., for its part, would surely prefer to avoid the chaos and uncertainty that any military conflict with China would create.
Nevertheless, both China and the United States are making commitments in the South China Sea that each may find difficult to back away from. Over the past two weeks, these commitments have generated a war of words that analysts of the relationship have found troubling.
The key problems focus on China’s efforts to expand (or create) islands in the Spratlys, which could theoretically provide the basis for claims to territorial waters.
The insistence of the United States on freedom of navigation could bring these tensions to a boil. Here are three ways in which tensions in the South China Sea might lead to conflict.