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China and America: Headed for a Showdown in the South China Sea?

South China Sea
200125-N-LH674-1073 PACIFIC OCEAN (Jan. 25, 2020) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Pacific Ocean Jan. 25, 2020. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier)

On Wednesday, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command announced that it would stay on high alert to “safeguard China’s sovereignty and security,” as well as to protect peace and stability in the South China Sea. The bold statement came after Beijing maintained that it had successfully warned off a U.S. destroyer that “trespassed” into “Chinese sovereign waters.”

The alert on Wednesday came after the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold had sailed near the appropriately named Mischief Reef, in the disputed Spratly Islands and without “approval” from Beijing. It was last month that Beijing announced a new notification law that requires all “foreign ships” to report their course, call signs, and cargo before entering the waters of the South China Sea, which China sees 1.3 million square miles as sovereign territory. A day earlier the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group (VINCSG) conducted operations in the South China Sea for the first time during the group’s 2021 deployment.

“More and more facts have proved that the US is the biggest risk and peace breaker for the stability and peace in the region,” said PLA Air Force Senior Colonel Tian Junli, spokesperson for the Southern Theater Command in a statement to the state-owned Global Times.

In an editorial, the Global Times took it even further, claiming that USS Benfold had “trespassed near” the reef and “without permission from China.” The argument is weak in itself as one can’t technically trespass with permission, but the editors added that if China and the U.S. don’t agree on the nature of the 12 nautical miles of the reef that “international law doesn’t empower any country to challenge others’ sovereign claim with an intrusion by a warship. The US in particular has no right to do so given the fact that it has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The editorial went on to call the presence of the U.S. destroyer “naked provocation” and further suggested that the U.S. “has deliberately provoked disputes in the South China Sea.”

Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military expert, also told the Global Times this week that the U.S. destroyer’s trespassing into Chinese sovereign waters as well as the US aircraft carrier’s deployment in the South China Sea were meant to be provocative moves aimed at China. Fu also said they could be coordinated with the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which has spent the week in port in Japan.

Fu said that China is fully capable of dealing of the alleged provocations and added, “The PLA cannot be defeated within the second island chain.”

Coinciding with these strong words, a Chinese destroyer flotilla also sailed in the waters between the island of Taiwan and near islands claimed by Japan. Chinese analysts had said the move was to send a warning to Japan’s right-wing forces as well as what was described as “Taiwan secessionists,” as the two have been “colluding to sabotage peace and stability in the region.”

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.