During the U.S. presidential election, World War 3 with Russia was the ultimate campaign boogeyman — alternatively coming from supporters of Donald Trump who claimed Hillary Clinton would kick it off with aggressive action in Syria, to opponents of the new president who said his bellicose language would initiate global conflict with actions like tearing up the Iranian nuclear agreement.
For most people, especially those who don’t spend the majority of their time following international conflict, the terror of World War 3 largely extends from the Middle East, most specifically Syria — where Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States, and other members of NATO have all played a role in the development of the protracted war.
One other major player has had a major voice in Syria, but it has done so in ostensible terms of non-interference: China. That public position does, however, clash with the country’s arms sales. Both directly and indirectly, Chinese weapons have made their way into the Syrian conflict, often funneled to both sides through Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet, according to the Diplomat, they refuse to release a hard-line stance on the war, other than one that underlines national sovereignty — a position that some foreign policy experts see reflected in what they want from the rest of the world when it comes to the South China Sea.
“International support for China’s position on Syria is very valuable for Beijing’s broader geopolitical ambitions, particularly its quest to delegitimize The Hague’s ruling against its expansionary conduct in the South China Sea. China’s expanded attention to Syria is a powerful display of Beijing’s disagreement with the norms set by Western-dominated international institutions. By articulating an unerringly consistent message on state sovereignty, China could strengthen its alliances with developing countries that support its South China Sea claims.”
While the conflict in the South China Sea has been boiling under the surface for years, it took on a new prominence in the U.S. on Monday when Donald Trump’s administration spoke about taking a hard-line stance to Chinese settlements in the area — including artificially built islands — that run contrary to international court the Hague’s ruling against China’s sovereignty claims last year. Both White House spokesperson Sean Spicer and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, quoted below, indicated that it would be a facet of Trump’s foreign policy, reported Time.
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
In response, China has made it clear that they do not fear war with the U.S. or anyone else in the world who may attempt to push back settlements in the South China Sea. State newspaper Global Times wrote that any such action would be “foolish” unless “Washington plans to wage a large-scale war.” Speaking further on the issue in a rare English-language interview with NBC, Chinese foreign affairs official Lu Kang said that the dispute was “not for the United States to decide.”
Another commonly referenced point of contention between the U.S. and China is Taiwan, a country that the world’s most populous nation considers a rogue province. While Trump’s decision to take a phone call from president Tsai Ing-wen, as well as some Republican lawmakers meeting with her in Texas, raised eyebrows in China, the GOP has traditionally been less-than-staunch on the One China policy. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush also entered into snafus over the issue, neither of which resulted in World War 3. Siding with Taiwan alone is not a foolproof indication that such warfare in on the way.
Still, should the South China Sea become a focal point of relations between China and the U.S., Taiwan could become even more relevant to their respective agendas. It’s one of five other countries that also lay claim to the waters, including Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Perhaps the most volatile of these countries is the Philippines, largely due to its mercurial president Rodrigo Duterte, whose bombastic drug war has resulted in the deaths of at least 6,000 people since he took power less than a year ago. In terms of signs of world war, he disturbingly compared himself favorably with Hitler — though he did later walk back these statements, claiming media conspiracy. Where his loyalties would lie in unknown: Duterte has backed off of his South China Sea claims to warm up relations with China, but he has also praised Trump.
Of course, all of these issues come on the heels of aggressive economic talk from Trump during his campaign, including accusations that China is manipulating its currency to keep trade competitive. The world’s two largest trading powers could easily fall into a financial conflict, even if military intervention is never ordered by Washington or Beijing. While less damaging to human life, a trade war could further destabilize the region, ushering in an international conflict in the future. Peter Navarro, who will lead U.S. trade and industrial policy under Trump, released an entire feature documentary called Death by China that blames the country for domestic economic ills.
Still, it’s important to note that World War 3 predictions, while fascinating, are the equivalent of a gossip page for international relations enthusiasts. One can speculate, even predict in some cases, but it’s also important to take it for what it is: educated guesses about the oft-shrouded foreign policy of the world’s superpowers; something that, especially in this age, can change week-by-week — well-illustrated by Monday’s statements from the White House about the South China Sea.
[Featured Image by Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock]