On January 22, Chinese government media angrily accused the U.S. of “wantonly provoking trouble” in the South China Sea.
The alleged American provocation? On January 17, the U.S. Navy’s USS Hopper, a guided missile destroyer, passed within 12 miles of Scarborough Shoal — a sea feature within Filipino territory that China now calls Huangyan Island.
Got that? Within Filipino territory, but China claims it.
Despite a 2016 ruling by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration that China’s shenanigans in the South China Sea have violated the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, Beijing asserted the Hopper’s action violated sovereign Chinese territory.
It gets worse. Someone in China’s defense ministry deemed the American ship’s passage a dire threat and dispatched a Chinese navy frigate. The Chinese warship then “drove it (the Hopper) away with a warning.”
Beijing’s propaganda portrays the incident as a near-clash of nuclear-armed giants. A warship belonging to the U.S. violated sovereign Chinese territory. The brief cruise was so ominous an outrage that China risked starting a war.
Most American and European media dismissed China’s reactions to a rather routine U.S. Navy Freedom of Navigation Operation as political theater.
However, completely dismissing China’s response as theatrics is a mistake.