The ongoing trade war between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has quickly rippled out to damage other parts of the bilateral relationship. However, while the world is focused on the economic aspect of this relationship, tensions have been steadily rising in South China Sea for years. In 2017, President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy noted, “China . . . want[s] to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” The problem pre-dates Trump’s tenure in office, but it has escalated of late.
On September 30, the USS Decatur conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Spratly Islands, specifically the Gaven and Johnson reefs, located to the west of the Philippines. China, along with a number of other countries in the region, claims the Spratlys. In recent years, China has militarized many of the disputed islands in the South China Sea by creating artificial islands, building airfields and military bases, and stationing troops—all in an effort to bully and intimidate the smaller, less powerful nations who make claims on the islands. In April 2018, Admiral Philip Davidson, currently the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, wrote, “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”