Tensions between the U.S. and China continue to escalate. On Sunday, an American warship conducting a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea was confronted by a Chinese destroyer. The Chinese vessel, aiming to enforce China’s claims of sovereignty over the geopolitically crucial waterway, closed to within just 45 feet of the USS Decatur. The 505-foot-long Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer was forced to take immediate evasive action to avoid a collision.

“A (People’s Republic of China) Luyang destroyer approached USS Decatur in an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the South China Sea,” said Capt. Charles Brown, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet.

China’s Type 052D Luyang Destroyers are not quite as large and capable as their latest Type 055 program, which has been compared with America’s Arleigh Burke Class.  They are, nonetheless, modern and competent warships.  China’s Type 052D program commissioned its first vessel in 2014; around 26 are expected to join the Chinese fleet.  Both classes of destroyers are key components of China’s naval strategy: First, secure the South China Sea, and then the world’s oceans.

At 515 feet long and 7,500 tons, the Chinese Type 052D Destroyer is about the same the same length but more than 800 tons lighter than the American Arleigh Burke-class Decatur. (Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

China is just one of several nations with claims regarding territory in the South China Sea. International norms dictate that each nation retain the rights to 200 miles of sea adjacent to its shores. This “exclusive economic zone” grants each nation sovereignty over the waters just beyond its shores, including the legal right to natural resources found therein. China, however, claims that its ownership of the South China Sea precedes the creation of modern nations. As a result, the Chinese government has used its considerable naval presence in the region to try to force competing nations out of the waterway entirely.

(Courtesy of Flickr)

In the above image, China can be found at the top of the map, but its claims of sovereign waters extend down throughout the South China Sea (red lines). It also shows the competing claims made by other nations and the cluster of natural and man-made islands in the middle that have become the subject of tension between nearly all Pacific powers. China built islands out of reefs for the sole purpose of positioning military assets on them to both extend their claims of ownership over the waterway and bolster their defensive posture when nations like the United States challenge their assertions. The U.S. has maintained that it will continue to navigate through what the global community considers as “international waters.”

“The U.S. side repeatedly sends military ships without permission into seas close to South China Seas islands, seriously threatening China’s sovereignty and security, seriously damaging Sino-US military ties and seriously harming regional peace and stability,” said China’s defense ministry.
“The Chinese military will resolutely perform its defense duties and continue to take all necessary measures to safeguard our sovereignty and the regional peace and stability.”

The Chinese statements, of course, bolster the narrative that China is defending territorial waters near to its territory, claiming American vessels traveling just outside the legally permitted 12 nautical miles of the fabricated islands for the sole purpose of making such claims represents a “serious threat” to China’s sovereignty. To those without a clear understanding of where these territorial borders lie, China’s statements seem almost reasonable. After all, without looking at a map, it could be easy to forget that they’re talking about waters some 1,000 miles south of the Chinese mainland.