Tensions in the South China Sea have been rising steadily in recent years, thanks to China’s declared sovereignty over the entirety of the massive waterway, despite competing claims from no fewer than five other nations with established international norms on their side. The United States, in particular, has taken issue with China’s claimed ownership of areas deemed by the global community to be international waters that any vessel has legal right to traverse.
As China has moved to militarize the vast open space of the South China Sea through a rapidly expanding navy and the construction and militarization of artificial islands, the United States has moved to strengthen alliances and formal relationships with other nations affected by China’s territorial policies, as well as beginning to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPs, which entails sailing American warships through international waters the Chinese claim ownership over.
These operations are always contested in some way by the Chinese, most often through strongly worded statements, but as tensions have continued to increase between China and the United States, so too have the stakes when the two nations’ navies interact on the high seas.
In September, the Arleigh Burke-Class guided missile destroy USS Decatur’s FONOP took it to within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratley Islands — an island chain the Chinese have been building up and militarizing for the better part of two years. In response, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s destroyer Luoyang intercepted the Decatur and nearly collided with it as the two ships refused to back down.