While China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea might shock and surprise today’s observers, its behavior has actually been remarkably consistent over recent decades.
China first exercised its power in the region in January 1974 when it ejected South Vietnam from the Crescent Islands. In March 1988, the Chinese Navy clashed with Vietnamese vessels, which resulted in Chinese occupation of seven islands in the Spratlys.
In 1995, China occupied Mischief Reef which fell in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. It then began building and reinforcing structures on neighboring reefs. In April 2012 China’s clashes with the Philippines continued over Scarborough Shoal, which was eventually occupied by China. Chinese attention then moved to Second Thomas Shoal. In March 2014, Chinese coast guard vessels prevented Philippines cargo vessels from resupplying a contingent of marines stationed in a wrecked vessel there.