For anyone who might still be somehow unaware, the US is currently in a superpower staring match with both Russia and China. The conflict in Syria has put Moscow back on the geopolitical map (so to speak), creating an enormous amount of tension with Washington whose regional allies have been left to look on in horror as Russian airstrikes and an Iranian ground incursion dash hopes of ousting President Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, in The South China Sea, Beijing has built 3,000 acres of new sovereign territory atop reefs in the Spratlys and although the reclamation effort itself isn’t unique, the scope of it most certainly is and Washington’s friends in the South Pacific are crying foul.
Beijing has continually insisted that it doesn’t intend to use the islands as military outposts, but the construction of runways and ports seems to tell a different story and so, Washington felt compelled to check things out over the summer by sending a Poseidon spy plane complete with a CNN crew to the area. Once the PLA spotted the plane the situation escalated quickly with the Chinese Navy telling US pilots to “Go Now!”
After that, an intense war of words developed with Defense Secretary Ash Carter insisting that the US would sail and fly anywhere it pleased and Beijing assuring the US that sailing within 12 nautical miles of the islands would prompt a harsh response from the PLA.
For weeks, the US was rumored to have been planning a freedom of navigation exercise in the Spratlys which, as we’ve pointed out several times this month, amounts to sailing by the islands just to see if China will shoot.