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What is the Most Dangerous Global Hotspot? North Korea or the South China Sea?

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Analysis: Where is the likelihood of a nuclear confrontation greater? North Korea or the South China Sea?

Relations between the United States and China, and the United States and North Korea have reached a boiling point within the first half of this year. Each nation has threatened to take military action. This is the result of the Trump administration’s decision to prioritize American interests in Asia.

On one hand, North Korea is trying to develop a nuclear missile with a range large enough to reach U.S. soil. On the other hand, China is building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea in direct violation of international law.

The United States has never been this close to war with another nation since the Cold War. The situations with both North Korea and China are close to escalating into an armed conflict with many potential casualties. The rest of the world is watching nervously as these three nations signal the possible end to an era of relative global peace and stability. Now, the question is which of these situations poses a greater threat to the international community.

The South China Sea is a highly disputed area with territory claimed by China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines. It’s resource rich with an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 10% of the worlds fisheries. 30% of the world’s trade passes through this region to the booming economic areas of East Asia.

Legally, the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) says that a country has exclusive rights to resources within 200 miles of its coastline. This region is known as a country’s exclusive economic zone or EEZ. The aforementioned countries all abide by these rules except for China. China has made sweeping claims over the territory claiming that 90% of the South China Sea belongs to them. This area of course overlaps the EEZs of many of the surrounding countries and China’s actions in these regions has been a source of international tension since World War II.

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China demarcates this territory using the 9-dash line (shown above), which it claims has a historical basis. However, as this article by TIME pointed out, even China has been ambiguous about what the lines really indicate.

The International Court of Justice in Hague, Netherlands ruled in favor of the Philippines as China was encroaching on their EEZ. It claimed that China was acting in direct violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a document which China themselves helped develop and signed onto. The UNCLOS rejects historical claims of territory. China disregarded the ruling, calling it “unlawful” and “suspicious”.

Since 2014, China has been building artificial islands in the Spratly Islands region and building weaponized naval bases there. This has been seen as an act of aggression by other claimant nations and the United States.

The United States has a vested interest in the South China Sea because China continues to harass its allies in the region and because it’s afraid of the impact of Chinese control on the trade flowing through the region claiming that it may seek to restrict travel of foreign trade vessels in the future.

China has said that it would allow for free flow of trade in the region but not for drilling activities for oil or natural gas, which has disrupted other Southeast Asian nation’s oil exploration and seismic activities. It will also not allow foreign military operations within the region which goes directly against U.S. interests as it sees the region as international waters.  

To challenge Chinese claims, the U.S. has repeatedly sent naval ships through areas within the South China Sea on freedom of navigation operations to promote the free passage of ships within the region.

On May 25th, a U.S. destroyer carried out one of these operations within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese controlled Mischief reef. China said it was “strongly dissatisfied” with the U.S.’s actions. At the security summit in Singapore last week on June 3rd, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said “We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims. We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo.” This statement has put pressure on the situation and helped reassure U.S. allies in the region. In addition, Mattis said that 60% of overseas tactical aviation assets would be assigned to the area.

So, is the U.S. headed to war with China in the South China Sea? With the increase in both Chinese and U.S. military presence in the region, some political commentators have stated that a miscalculation on either side could spark an armed conflict having the potential to escalate to a nuclear standoff.

Speaking of potential nuclear standoff, North Korea’s nuclear program has also become a near flashpoint in diplomatic relations between it and the United States. The United States claims that the program threatens world peace. North Korea counters, saying it needs its nukes to “deter U.S. aggression”. North Korea has had nuclear bombs since 2006 and possess a wide range of short and medium range missiles which are highly effective within a small radius. But in order to deter U.S. aggression, it needs a weapon with a range long enough to hit U.S. soil. North Korea needs a working intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM.

An ICBM works much like the rockets used to send satellites into space where the rocket is broken up into stages. With an ICBM, the first 3 stages are used to push the nuke into orbit and then in the 4th stage it’s supposed to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and hit the target.

North Korea’s longest-range ICBM, the Taepodong 2, if successfully tested, would put most of the U.S. in range. So far, it’s been tested 5 times. Out of the five times, it failed to launch 3 times and the last 2 times they’ve successfully been able to send it into orbit with the first 3 stages, failing on the 4th stage of re-entry.

It also possesses two other ICBMs, the KN-08 and the KN-14 which are theoretically capable of hitting the U.S. west coast however they haven’t been tested yet.

So how far is North Korea from developing a fully functional ICBM? It doesn’t possess one which it can fire today. However, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that if left unchecked, is on an “inevitable” path to obtaining a nuclear-armed missile capable of striking the United States.

To understand the situation, we must also examine why North Korea wants nuclear weapons so badly. Kim Jong Un saw the U.S. invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein and saw Gaddafi negotiate with the U.S. to give up his nuclear program only to be killed by U.S. backed rebels. He is determined not to be the U.S.’s next target. A working ICBM for him would mean protection from the U.S. and more negotiating power on the global front.

The United States has tried multiple methods to try to halt or slow down North Korea’s nuclear program in the past with most of them coming in the form of UN sanctions. Despite tensions due to the South China Sea, Donald Trump called on China to help put a stop to the situation since Chinese trade is what is keeping the North Korean regime alive. He formed warm relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping back in April while they discussed the problem at length. Though China accounts for 70% of North Korea’s trade, it is against its interests for North Korea to obtain a working ICBM. Many nations, including Russia, have called for North Korea to stop testing its missiles. The UN security council passed the latest round of sanctions against them on June 2nd.

What are the implications if North Korea does achieve its goal? Firstly, if North Korea can target U.S. cities, the U.S. is less likely to come to the aid of its allies in the region – South Korea and Japan. These two nations do not currently have nuclear weapons of their own. In the absence of U.S. protection, they would be incentivized to produce their own nukes. This could trigger a process called nuclear proliferation which means that countries would scramble to develop nuclear weapons of their own. There are currently 9 nations which possess nuclear weapons. Over 190 nations have maintained a non-nuclear status under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear Proliferation would have dire global consequences, destabilizing the global stability achieved under U.S. leadership and increasing the likelihood of nuclear war.

Secondly, this effectively puts the decision to obliterate in the hands of one man. North Korea is an autocracy with Kim Jong Un at the helm. The argument goes that because of this autocratic power, coupled with human rights abuses and blatant disregard for international law, North Korea cannot be trusted by the international community with possession of the most destructive weapons. This could further incentivize surrounding countries to protect themselves with nuclear arsenals of their own.

Though North Korea poses a direct threat to the United States and would ignite nuclear proliferation, it would not immediately result in armed conflict due to the concept of mutually assured destruction. A concept that even Kim Jong Un is aware of.

Heightened tensions between the U.S. and China present the possibility of an armed conflict right now which has the potential to escalate to nuclear war, which makes this situation worse in terms of starting the next global conflict. Chinese control of the South China Sea and airspace could have negative implications on trade thus hurting the 30% of trade that passes through the region.

North Korea possessing ICBMs and the prospect of nuclear proliferation are also grave dangers, even though it doesn’t present the prospect of armed conflict as immediately as the South China Sea issue. However, in the long term, it could lead to global destabilization and increase the probability of nuclear weapons use. Therefore, it needs to be treated with equal seriousness.

The final verdict is that neither is worse as the implications of both are equally grave, the difference being the timeframe within which they take shape. Though the South China Sea issue puts the world at risk of witnessing a conflict between two nuclear powers, both this and the North Korean issue must be solved immediately in order to ensure global peace and stability in the short and long term.

Pranav Prakash is a student at Rutgers University and writes about international relations.

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