Conflict in the South China Sea: Alternate Futures

“No serious futurist deals in prediction. These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers.” – Alvin Toffler, American writer and futurist

Much ink has been spilled over scenarios that may result in a conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. It is fair to state that many have been deliberated and reiterated regularly – tensions on the Korean peninsula, clashes or incidents during a freedom of navigation or an intelligence-gathering operation in the South China Sea, or Taiwan declaring independence. This brief and speculative forecast explores four alternatives, within or beyond the South China Sea and occurring on a “spectrum of intent” ranging from premeditated and/or avoidable or unplanned and/or accidental. No matter how or where it occurs, each singular scenario in the table below could act as the fuse to a U.S.-PRC conflict by 2030.

The simple table shown below displays how four alternative futures are generated. For each, the text below in italics for each scenario gives a one-line summary as to the worldview in this possible future. It is followed by three possible signposts that may lead to, or are characteristic of, the imagined future.

Within the South China Sea Beyond the South China Sea
Premeditated, Avoidable Alternative Future A Alternative Future C
Unplanned, Accidental Alternative Future B Alternative Future D

Alternative Future A: High Seas Interdiction

A U.S. resurgence shows as the ‘Indo-Asia Pacific’ concept acquires currency and tangible forms, formal or otherwise, which the U.S. leads or sponsors but China contests. Select U.S. proliferation security or multilateral military exercises in 2020, involving countries beyond Southeast Asia, lose their original intent and gain aspects of informal alliances or unstated treaties revolving around the Indo-Pacific in 2030. Japan joins as a junior member, together with Germany, of the now-renamed “Five Eyes Plus Two” intelligence-sharing group. Regular and predictable joint statements from ASEAN are a thing of the past, as spirited debates and widening interests among its members mar what was once a due formality.

Scenario: A China Coast Guard (CCG) ship attempts to interdict an Indian-flagged civilian vessel inbound for Taiwan, in international waters within the South China Sea. Repeated boarding attempts by CCG boarding parties are frustrated by evasive maneuvers, emplaced concertina razor wires and sandbags, and serious resistance offered by the Indian crew members who employ water cannons and foam monitors. Suffering mounting casualties from small arms fire and the near-certainty of a CCG seizure of their vessel, the captain and chief engineer begin scuttling her, acting under sealed orders from New Delhi. An Australian Navy ship receiving the Indian vessel’s distress call quickly arrives at the scene to pick-up survivors under Chinese protestations. The Americans in turn rapidly converge nearby USN ships, which incidentally include a rescue and salvage vessel in transit to Japan, to secure the site and recover the rumored cargo: sea-launched cruise missiles destined for Taiwan’s German-licensed, indigenously built submarines. Amidst ratcheting tensions between the parties involved, an apprehensive Beijing quietly hastens mobilization for a cross-strait invasion, irrespective of its state of preparedness.

Alternative Future B: A Downed Flight

China’s leaders, confident, yet eager to entrench its self-perceived hegemony, ‘speak softly’ yet signal to officials down below that ‘big stick’ initiatives are “acceptable” to preserve the status quo. A handful of small countries, beholden to Beijing, officially recognize the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), now known as the Eastern and Southern Peace ADIZ, concurrent with China formally issuing a document on its definitions, interpretations, and enforcement. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is no longer a Chinese talking point and is dismissed during regional backdoor meetings as an ‘anachronism’. It is suggested that a revised version be issued via “regional consultations”. China’s Maritime Militia are now equipped with newer and larger boats and are now shadowed by CCG ships during patrols or escort missions at contested fishing zones in the South China Sea.

Scenario: A Taiwanese civilian airliner mysteriously crashes in waters close to South Korea and Japan while attempting to defy China’s newly expanded ADIZ that has now encompassed the South China Sea. Onboard were Taiwanese officials, Japanese diplomats, and media entourage from both countries. Much later, air traffic control voice recordings and open-source data would indicate that the airplane was hailed and shadowed by two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force fighters, and for a short period, its flight path was well within the theoretical tracking and acquisition range of a PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer. Salvage, rescue, and naval ships from four countries – China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan – converge on the general crash location in order to secure physical evidence and the airplane’s black boxes. Within days, it devolves into serious skirmishes between various parties that include ramming and direct fire, forestalling hopes of the quick recovery of the black boxes. The U.S. deploys a carrier battle group to support joint Taiwanese-Japanese efforts to recover the black boxes. Seoul quickly backs down, but China matches American naval presence in a tense stand-off in the East China Sea.

Alternative Future C: Ethnic Killings

The word ‘China’ in South China Sea is no longer a geographic description but de facto and de jure, with acquiescence by many countries surrounding the body of water via a tacit acknowledgment of China’s dominance. Most ASEAN militaries increasingly field and flaunt China-made planes and ships while occasional forays or extended presence by the U.S. in the South China Sea is indulged by PRC in 2030 as “American nostalgia”. The ASEAN countries that once hosted or trained with the U.S. Military, are terminating or reducing the once welcome presence. One or two are even abiding tour operators featuring excursions at China’s reclaimed “islands” open for tourism. China’s re-tooling of its much-criticized “debt diplomacy” is a great success as countries along its touted ‘string of pearls’ increasingly eschew the World Bank and IMF in favor of Beijing.

Scenario: Ultra-nationalists in a South Asian country carry out the first of a series of deadly attacks against their country’s religious minority by using a political procession – ostensibly to protest a remark by a minority rights activist in an interview – as both cover and rallying point. Unverified reports of mass killings follow claims that security forces failed to protect minority-populated areas or were ordered to stand down. As weeks pass with the country on verge of civil war, U.S. and India announce the dispatch of a combined joint task force to the South Asian country under a humanitarian pretext, pending a UNSC resolution. China denounces the preemptive move as blatant, unwarranted interference in the “internal affairs” of said country. The embattled South Asian government, wary of its giant neighbor, officially requests Chinese “peace-keepers.” Beijing quickly agrees and introduces a UNSC draft resolution of their own. Meanwhile, China rallies its token naval presence in-country and mobilizes reinforcements. The race is on to see who will be first to dictate “facts on the ground” aimed at denying or establishing, for the first time in centuries, a significant Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean.

Alternative Future D: Embassy Attack

Under domestic pressures, the U.S. voluntarily retrenches from the first island chain to the second and then third in quick succession, revealing to the world that American reach starkly contrasts with its self-professed global aspirations. U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and bilateral military exercises with Southeast Asian countries drop-off precipitously. Seoul and Tokyo turn into regional rivals while the U.S. is unwilling or no longer able to mediate between its squabbling allies. The United States commits to various new initiatives against Beijing, even attempting Russian-style influence operations across the “Great Firewall” and in China’s neighboring countries, seeking to displace or overturn China’s position with minimal resources.

Scenario: The Chinese embassy in a Central Asian country hosted a high-visibility diplomatic reception to celebrate a landmark treaty that enhances China’s influence in Central Asia. The reception comes under a coordinated attack launched by an extremist faction of a political movement banned in China and operating in exile from the U.S. Among the casualties is the second-highest-ranking member of the communist party’s politburo standing committee, reputedly a policy hawk on PRC-U.S. relations. The U.S. embassy is later noted as having delegated attendance to its lowest ranking foreign service officer, the cultural attaché, who left shortly before the attack. The leaders of the political movement, denounce the splinter faction but refuse to condemn the attack, giving fuel to long-standing Chinese claims that the U.S. is “sponsoring terrorism”. China’s state media plays up the “heroic sacrifice” of its “leading comrade”. The Central Asian government refuses Washington’s offers of forensic expertise and quickly concedes to Beijing the lead for investigation and interrogation of the lone surviving attacker. Within weeks, Beijing announces the attack was directed and sponsored by the CIA and vows retaliation at a place and time of China’s choosing.

“Strong opinions, lightly held.” – Institute for the Future

When angels cast pearls, the devil’s advocate plays swineherd. Much of the present-day discourse surrounding the likely chief causes of a future U.S.-PRC conflict has been extensively covered by other parties, thus this speculative foray into grounds less well-trodden. The alternative futures described and its attendant scenarios are considered implausible in the present but the preconditions that may lead to those paths already exist today. Great power ambitions and (mis)calculations of future leaders may entice or force the actors to perceive an advantage or leverage in the conditions as and when they arise. It is hoped that this thought exercise has shed light on unexpected blind-spots that may lead to a wider range of unexpected outcomes that could arise from the actions of the actors as they seek to advance or arrest their waxing and waning fortunes.


Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.

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