The South China Sea has been the scene of heightening tensions between China and a number of nations in recent years, thanks to their claims of sovereignty over the entirety of the waterway placing their official policy directly at odds with international law. The United States — which boasts the most powerful Navy in the world, and a laundry list of alliances in the region — has been at the forefront of challenging China’s aggressive ways in recent years, and in September, that aggressive stature nearly resulted in a collision between Chinese and American destroyers.

The incident occurred during what the U.S. Navy has dubbed a Freedom of Navigation Operation, or FONOP. The basic premise is simple: the United States Navy sails its warships through the South China Sea in what the global community sees as international waters. Their presence as they pass through is meant as a symbolic message to China, indicating that the United States recognizes international law rather than the Chinese government’s claims of ownership. However, China’s rapidly expanding Navy has recently adopted a more aggressive posture when it comes to these violations of what they consider to be their sovereign territory.

The result, as the world witnessed in September, may sometimes be two massive warships, both representing powerful nations, with their backs against the proverbial wall. U.S. warships, representing the most powerful navy and nation in the world, won’t be pushed around by Chinese vessels attempting to bully the rest of the world out of a region that sees a third of global commerce shipped through its lanes. The Chinese, however, see America’s presence as a threat to their nation’s security. Both vessels know their foothold in the region is at stake with each interaction, and that the stakes are even higher if such an interaction were to turn violent..

USS Decatur (left) and the Luoyang (right) courtesy of the US Navy

The Chinese Navy, commonly known as the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, is no stranger to issuing threats to American aircraft and vessels operating in the South China Sea, and this most recent close call between destroyers was no different.