The United States Navy has been conducting regular Freedom of Navigation operations throughout the South China Sea for years now, pressing China’s aggressive claims of sovereignty over the entire expansive waterway extending thousands of miles from Chinese shores. Many nations have competing claims over portions of the South China Sea, with much of the international community unified in their assertion that the breadth of the waterway remains “international waters.”

A nation’s sovereign waters traditionally extend only 12 nautical miles from its shores.

Now, America’s closest ally also finds itself at odds with China’s attempts to assert its dominance over the region, laying claim to its rich natural resources and potentially looking to leverage their control over the massive amount of international commerce traveling through the South China Sea at any given time. An estimated one-third of all goods sold anywhere in the world traverse the increasingly contested waterway at some point, making the stakes in China’s staring contest with the rest of the world far greater than mere bragging rights.

Last week, the British amphibious warship HMS Albion passed somewhere near the Paracel islands, which are manned by the Chinese military despite contesting claims over the land masses made by both Vietnam and Taiwan. Reports vary regarding what level of proximity the HMS Albion, carrying a contingent of Royal Marines Commandos headed for Ho Chi Minh City, came to the islands.  Some suggest that they remained outside the traditionally accepted 12 nautical mile limit.  But China’s claims extend well beyond that barrier, and Beijing responded by dispatching at least one People’s Liberation Army-Navy frigate and two helicopters to intercept the British vessel.