The South China Sea is a volatile place – or rather, its politics are.
China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have been fighting over this azure stretch of the Pacific for more than a century. But tensions increased markedly in recent years as China, claiming the South China Sea as its own, has built on and militarised some 250 islands off the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, along with an arbitration tribunal, are now challenging the legitimacy of China’s presence there.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to insist that the sea remains under international control. Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were supposed to discuss the situation during their first meeting at Mar-a-Lago on April 5, 2017. But the launch of 59 Tomahawks in Syria and growing tensions on the Korean peninsula completely overshadowed the maritime issue.
Two months after that meeting, the US triggered a classic confrontational cycle in the South China Sea. On May 24, the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey passed through the contested waters and sailed close to Mischief Reef, in the Spratly archipelago.
The island, controlled by China, has become a symbol of the country’s assertiveness since it was occupied in 1995.
The operation was the first military maritime exercise in eight months and the first of Trump’s presidency. Under the Obama administration, starting in 2015, American patrols in the South China Sea were regular practice.