Early this month, two United States Navy missile-guided destroyers sailed within 12 nautical miles off Mischief Reef, one of 7 man-made islands built by China in the disputed South China Sea, challenging Beijing’s excessive maritime claims in the East Asia and Pacific region.
China’s claims are not recognized under international law after the Philippines won its case in July 2016 in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which questioned the legality of China’s nine-dash-line demarcation.
However, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to assert its sovereign rights over the disputed territory, particularly in Mischief Reef, which is locally known as Panganiban Reef and well within the country’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, also have conflicting claims on the strategic waterway where about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne trade pass every year. The South China Sea is also a rich fishing ground and is widely believed to have large deposits of oil and natural gas.
Since U.S. President Donald Trump was elected into office in November 2016, the United States Navy has stepped up its “freedom of navigation operation” patrols (Fonops) in the South China Sea, increasing tension between the world’s two powerful military and economic nations.
During the administration of Barack Obama, when China began building artificial islands, the United States Navy conducted only 6 Fonops despite his “rebalance of Asia” policy as Washington realized the real military and economic competition for global supremacy is in Asia.
Under Trump, U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers had done 10 Fonops from 2017, including two operations in the first two months of the year. China, which has been protesting these patrols, has aggressively responded to US Fonops when it’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy destroyer Lanzhou nearly collided late last year with the American destroyer Decatur near Gaven and Johnson Reefs.
Beiing has shifted tactic from monitoring, shadowing and issuing warning against Washington’s warships to threatening to ram the vessels to force them to alter course and move away from the artificial islands. These islands, after all, are now virtually military bases with secured ports, airfields and missile platforms.
The U.S. and China’s shadow play in the South China Sea has increasingly made littoral states in the region nervous because of the potential accidents, like ship and aircraft collision, which could start a minor conflict in the area.
But it appears that the rivalry between the United States and China has gone beyond air and maritime space after Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) issued last month a report, “Challenges to Security in Space,” assessing Russia and China’s space capabilities and their threats to American’s interests.