When a U.S. Navy P8-A surveillance aircraft recently flew near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, it was warned eight times by the Chinese navy to leave the area. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity is as firm as a rock.” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter replied, “[T]here should be no mistake about this: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows us, as we do all around the world.” So, is a U.S.-China conflict in the South China Sea imminent?
In 1995, when I was serving in the Pentagon, China began building structures on Mischief Reef, which is claimed by the Philippines and lies much closer to its shores than to China’s. The U.S. issued a statement that we took no position on the competing claims by five states over the 750 or so rocks, atolls, islets, cays and reefs that comprise the Spratlys, which cover a vast area – 425,000 square kilometers – of the South China Sea. We urged that the parties involved settle the disputes peacefully.