The U.S. Navy's first freedom of navigation patrol of 2016 to counter Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea has refocused attention on the continuing tensions in East Asia.  The South China Sea is back on the front page and the U.S. Navy is at the forefront.

The destroyer Curtis Wilbur’s patrol of Triton Island, part of the Paracel Islands chain, on Jan. 30 came a little was the Navy’s first freedom of navigation patrol of Chinese claims in South China Sea in 2016. It had been more than three months after since the destroyer Lassen conducted made its much-publicized patrol of the Spratley Islands, where China is building artificial islands on top of reefs.

China immediately condemned the the most recent patrol and called for the U.S. to focus more on building trust between the two nations.

The long-running conflict in the South China Sea is long-running and has become violent in the past. In 1974, China and South Vietnam fought over the Paracel Islands, with China ultimately gaining the upper hand. Today, Vietnam, Taiwan and China all lay claim to the islands.  

To better understand the conflict, Navy Times contacted an expert. Zhiqun Zhu, who heads Tthe China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where he is and is an associate professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

We asked him about the Paracel Islands, China's claims in the South China Sea and about the risk of war in the region over competing claims.

Q. Vietnam and China have shot at each other over the Paracel Islands in the past, why are these islands important?

A. It's not just these particular islands. For China, all of the islands in the South China Sea are important.

The Paracels are interesting because until 1974, the South Vietnamese controlled them and Chinese forces drove them away. From China's perspective, this has been resolved, there should be no dispute here — the issue is settled. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, with the discovery of oil and gas resources, all these areas become controversial again.

Q. What's the basis of China's claim to virtually all of the South China Sea?

A. China's official argument is that since ancient times the Chinese have used these islands. They argue that — and this is very controversial — China was the first country to discover those islands and use them for fishing and other purposes. They even have found old European maps that show those islands belong to China

So from the Chinese perspective, they make their claims from a position of, "We found it first." For the later claimants, such as the Vietnamese, they make their claims on things like the proximity of the islands to their homeland.  But the Chinese claim that they owned the islands before international law was developed. So it's a very messy situation.

Zhiqun Zhu is an associate professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University, where he heads the China Institute.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Zhiqun Zhu

Q. Why is the United States so interested in what goes on in the South China Sea?

A. Officially, the United States holds that freedom of navigation is important. But I think fundamentally the United States will not allow a challenger to replace it, either regionally or globally. So I think the objective here is to prevent the rise of a challenger, and China is challenging the region.

Q. Is all of this building to something? Could there be some conference, a la Versailles in 1919, for the South China Sea that can settle these claims short of a regional conflict?

A. It's very difficult for today's China because Xi Jinping is a very tough, strong leader. I don't think he is going to compromise or yield to any external pressure. In the 1980s and 1990s there were some proposals to share resources ... but today, with China becoming more assertive, I don't see China dealing with smaller claimants on an equal footing.

And with the U.S. sailing warships in the area, you can see the shadow of great power competition between the U.S. and China, and it's getting more complicated now. It's not just a matter of five claimants in the South China Sea, you have external powers — the United States, Japan, Australia — all getting involved.

I don't think it's possible that these parties will sit down and talk about this in a peaceful way. I think a militarization of the region is a real possibility.

Q. Are the parties too entrenched now for a political solution?

A. I think so. It may even run out of control.

It really has become a competition between the United States and China. So they would have to sit down and figure out how to realistically deal with the new political and economic landscape of East Asia.

Q. Taking this kind of confrontational approach to its logical extreme, is there any advantage to either the U.S. or China in going to war over this?

A. I don't think either China or the United States wants to clash with each other directly. But I think for the United States it's essential to send a message to China that you can't just push people around. But for China, China feels that, 'All these islands belong to us. I have every right to do what I want on these islands, they are not militarized, so why are you sending warships to challenge us?' They see it as provocative.

I think both sides need to take a step back.