Troubled Waters: Where the U.S. and China Could Clash in the South China Sea By Karen Leigh, Peter Martin and Adrian Leung

Troubled Waters: Where the U.S. and China Could Clash in the South China Sea By Karen Leigh, Peter Martin and Adrian Leung

Perhaps nowhere do the U.S. and Chinese militaries come closer to each other than in the South China Sea. And the brinkmanship in the waters could soon rise under President-elect Joe Biden.

As the world’s biggest economies spar on everything from trade to the coronavirus, fears have grown that a miscalculation between warships could spark a wider military confrontation. Although top defense officials from the U.S. and China have maintained communication even as broader relations have deteriorated, more fervent nationalism in both countries raises the political stakes of any crisis.

President Donald Trump’s administration has increased the number of “freedom of navigation operations”—known as FONOPs—in the South China Sea to challenge China’s sovereignty claims. The current round of maneuvers, which involve naval vessels sailing within territorial limits of land features claimed by China, reached a new high of 10 last year after a total of just five in the last two years of the Obama administration.