In the past couple of years, the US has made a point of sending warships off the coast of Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea every couple of months, as a way to “challenge” Chinese ownership. The rate at which such “patrols” take place is soon to increase.
US officials say that they are planning to conduct a lot more such patrols, and at regular intervals, a move which officials concede will likely fuel yet more tensions between the US and China over the South China Sea’s status.
China claims most of the South China Sea, but some of its claims overlap with other nations in the area. While most of these are being negotiated diplomatically, the US has backed every claim that conflicts with China’s, and has been sending warships through the area to prove that they have the freedom to do so.
As a practical matter, sailing near such islands isn’t a big deal, and China generally ignored the practice until the US started publicizing the fact that they were doing it specifically to spite Chinese claims in the region. Chinese officials have warned they won’t tolerate overt threats to their islands, but so far that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
Pacific Commander Admiral Harris has been advocating more patrols on the grounds that “more is better,” though it’s not clear how many more ships are going to have to be committed to the region to keep making such trips. The USS John S. McCain was the last warship to make such an attempt, though having smashed into a tanker just days later, ti’s likely to need considerable repairs before it’s up for another patrol.