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Tumultuous Waters of the South China Sea
China's claim that most of the South China Sea is theirs is to offset what they see as American encirclement. Of course, it is nonsense, but when powerful leaders buy into the argument, their military is not far behind. American alliances are with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, primarily, with lesser alliances in Indonesia and Malaysia. None of them pose any threat whatsoever to China. The claims of China that much of the South China Sea is their territorial waters is about mining the resources that lay beneath the ocean (oil and natural gas). So, China began testing the western alliance by expanding the reefs in the Spratly Islands and Subi Reef, just a few hundred of miles from the Philippines (Palawan Island).
The have been dredging the reefs and increasing their size to accommodate jet fighters, created deep water docks for naval ships, and installing radar etc. China is challenging the USA as the regional power with 60 submarines, 56 amphibious ships, 26 destroyers, 5 nuclear attack submarines, and one aircraft carrier. To counter this, American military may return to the Philippines very soon after some 20 years absence. The waters of the South China Sea present a challenge that America cannot back down from due to its defense alliances with many southeast asia nations who fear the growing military might of China. But, China's dilemma is that any war over the ocean is a double edged sword. The US - China trade is almost $600 billion a year and the two countries are not enemies or even in a Cold War state. A war over the ocean would also damage China's oil and raw material imports that all traverse the South China Sea and China would need goodwill from other nations, namely, Vietnam and Indonesia. Any war might end in a draw after some incredible damage to both sides. Political aspirations continue to push China in seeking in being a major world power, and this is one way to do it- to infringe on others and be a bully in their area. America is nothing more than an entity that will not allow it to happen. China has seized over 3000 acres of the islands in just two years.
When the US decided to challenge the Chinese claims, it sent the USS Lassen, a guided missile cruiser, into the waters that China claims as theirs near Subi Reef. China claims that all islands within the South China Sea are theirs. So, Chinese reaction was inflammatory to almost a comical sense, calling the US action as "reckless", "extremely irresponsible actions". But, the US was proving a point - this is not your ocean and the islands are not all yours (many are claimed by the Philippines) and we will traverse the ocean wherever we want.
Thus, the Chinese sortied two warships that shadowed the Americans. They continued to issue warnings. The ships were only a few thousand feet from one another. Nothing more happened. The US ship cruised to its destination and the warnings from the Chinese went in one ear and out the other, this time. But China warned that future cruises into their water will be testing their patience and that may warrant more serious action.
There is no question the South China Sea will be a flashpoint for war in the future.