The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain transits through the South China Sea while conducting a freedom of navigation operation. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda/US Navy

MANILA – Another close encounter between US and Chinese warships capped a tumultuous year in the South China Sea, where the two superpowers are jostling for supremacy in Asia’s maritime heartland.

The upshot has been an increasingly perilous tit-for-tat between the two rivals, with the potential to set off a devastating military confrontation coincident with US President-elect Joseph Biden’s inauguration.

Earlier this week, naval forces from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command reportedly expelled the USS John S McCain while it was sailing through Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea.

The incident reportedly took place while the US Navy was conducting a routine Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) in the hotly contested area, with Beijing claiming the bulk of the South China Sea as part of its “blue national soil”.

The FONOPs have been the US’ primary means of challenging China’s wide-reaching claims in adjacent waters, but they also seem to have simultaneously fueled the latter’s drive to militarize disputed land features in the area with rising self-confidence.

Now with the world’s largest navy, China has demonstrated a growing eagerness to challenge Washington’s decades-long dominance in Asian waters, setting the stage for a potential for a new balance of power-determining clash.

“[The] US destroyer trespassed into waters near China’s Nansha [Spratly] Islands without the authorization of the Chinese government, and the PLA Southern Theater Command organized naval and aerial forces, and warned and expelled it,” claimed Senior Colonel Tian Junli, a spokesperson at the PLA Southern Theater Command.

China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier (C) sailing during a drill in the South China Sea, April 18, 2018. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

“The US action was a serious violation of China’s sovereignty and security, and it gravely disrupted peace and stability in the South China Sea, which China is resolutely against,” the Chinese military spokesman added.  

The PLA’s “command troops are on high alert at all times and will firmly carry out their duties and missions to safeguard national sovereignty and security as well as peace and stability in the region.”

The incident was first reported by China’s Global Times, a state-backed newspaper notorious for its nationalistic and at times jingoistic rhetoric. The Communist Party-affiliated publication has strongly advocated for a tougher pushback against America’s naval presence in the adjacent waters.

“[T]he command troops must have detected, tracked, identified and warned away the US warship very quickly earlier in the day,” the Global Times reported, citing several Chinese experts hailing the incident as a much-needed reassertion of Beijing’s coming of age as a naval powerhouse.

Echoing Chinese official rhetoric, the newspaper accused the US warship of intending to “provoke China.” The US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), however, categorically denied that its warship has been driven away from Chinese-claimed waters, reiterating its commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters.

“USS John S McCain was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory,” 7th Fleet spokesman Lieutenant Joe Keiley told the media, emphatically denying both the occurrence and the pretext of the alleged expulsion of an American destroyer from the South China Sea.

“USS John S McCain conducted this [freedom of navigation operation] in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters,” the US Navy spokesman added, insisting that “The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as USS John S McCain did here.”

The Pentagon dismissed China’s claims as an attempt to “misrepresent” its “lawful” maritime operations in international waters such as the South China Sea.

“All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms,” Keiley said.

Although the precise circumstances of the latest near-encounter cannot be independently verified or denied, the overall trajectory of Sino-American rivalry in the region is increasingly troubling.

Ever since the 2001 incident in Hainan, when a Chinese jet fighter had a deadly collision with an American surveillance aircraft, the PLA – together with an armada of maritime militia forces – has progressively tightened its noose on US military operations in the South China Sea.

In May 2016, the USS William P Lawrence conducted an “innocent passage” within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef in the contested Spratly Islands.

In response, the PLA deployed warships to shadow the American vessel. Months later, in October, the USS Decaturwas reportedly shadowed by three Chinese warships during a FONOP near the Triton and Woody Islands in the Paracels.

In May last year, the USS Preble and USS Chung-Hoon were reportedly harassed by Chinese forces, which tried to warn off the American warships from sailing within 12 nautical miles of Beijing-claimed islands in the Spratlys.

By August, it was the USS Wayne Meyer’s turn as it pierced through the 12 nautical mile radius of the Chinese-controlled Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs. Once again, the PLA tried to warn off the American warships.

An aerial photo of the Fiery Cross Reef, aka Yongshu Reef, released by the Chinese military. Photo: PLA Daily

The most dramatic incident, however, took place in late-2018 when a PLA warship maneuvered within 50 yards of the US guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur in an attempt to intimidate its American counterpart from conducting FONOPs in the Spratlys.

In April this year, a Chinese warship escorting the country’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning, en route to “mock battles”, reportedly made an “unsafe and unprofessional” maneuver against the nearby US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin, which was also on routine FONOPs in the South China Sea.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-2020, Reed Werner, the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Southeast Asia, warned, “We do find the current trend line very worrisome,” where “China continues to push forward” just “[a]s countries are focused inward.”

The top Pentagon official said that the risk of military confrontation was “definitely not overblown” while highlighting China’s “continued risky and escalatory behavior” against American naval forces in the South China Sea.