Tensions over the South China Sea, a body of water at the center of an international territorial tussle, reached new highs Tuesday after a U.S. Navy ship sailed through contested waters near the chain of Spratly Islands. The long-disputed islands, which are occupied by Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, China and Brunei, started getting some new, unwanted neighbors last year after Beijing began building artificial islands in the Sea to house military bases.
China’s aforementioned regional rivals, including Taiwan, claimed that the man-made islands were a way to exert control over international shipping lanes, the rich fishing grounds and possible energy reserves under the seabed. On Tuesday, the U.S. launched an operation in order to demonstrate the right to navigate in the area, which the United Nations has designated as shared, international waters.
While the history of occupation on islands in the South China Sea goes back hundreds of years, it wasn't until 1974 that China began strongly exerting itself in the region when it killed dozens of Vietnamese troops that were stationed on a small group of islands in the wider Paracel Islands range, which is just north of the Spratly Islands.
Below is a retrospective of the most significant moments in the dispute, beginning in 2001 and using information provided by the Center For New American Security, a bipartisan global security think tank based in Washington, D.C.
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) October 27, 2015
- April 2001: A U.S. Navy intelligence aircraft and Chinese J-8II fighter jet collided in midair approximately 70 miles away from China's Hainan Island, killing one Chinese pilot and forcing the U.S. aircraft to land on Hainan Island, where U.S. crew members were detained.
- Aug. 2002: Vietnamese troops fired warning shots at Philippine military reconnaissance planes flying overhead near a Spratly Islands islet.
- March 2009: A Chinese Bureau of Fisheries vessel shined a high-powered spotlight on the USNS Victorious, forcing the ship to stop. Later that month, five Chinese vessels surrounded and harassed the USNS Impeccable approximately 75 miles south of Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
- June 2009: A People’s Liberation Army Navy submarine followed the USS John S. McCain destroyer and was suspected of colliding with and damaging the ship’s sonar equipment.
- May 2009: Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claimed the continental shelf attached to their land should be extended so they could claim the economic rights to large areas of the South China Sea, including any energy discovered. China protested the claims.
- Feb. 2011: A Chinese warship allegedly fired warning shots at a Philippine vessel after ordering it to leave the area near Jackson Atoll in the Spratly Islands.
- May 2011: Philippine President Benigno Aquino III warned the visiting Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie of a possible arms race in the region if tensions worsened over disputes in the South China Sea.
- July 2011: Chinese soldiers reportedly assaulted a Vietnamese fisherman and threatened crew members before expelling them from waters near the disputed Paracel Islands.
- March 2012: Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated its sovereignty claim over the entire South China Sea.
- April 2012: Filipino surveillance aircraft identified Chinese fishing vessels at Scarborough Shoal, causing the Philippine Navy to deploy its largest warship, newly acquired from the U.S, to the area. In response, China sent surveillance ships to warn the Philippine Navy to leave the area.
— The Japan Times (@japantimes) October 21, 2015
- Aug. 2013: Malaysia suggested that it might work with China over their South China Sea claims and ignore the other claimants, with Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein saying that his country had no problem with China patrolling the South China Sea.
- Jan. 2014: China imposed a fishing permit rule in the South China Sea, defying the objections of the U.S., the Philippines and Vietnam.
- Aug. 2014: American Boeing P-8 Poseidon was harassed by Chinese Shenyang J-11. Rear. Adm Zhang Zhaozhong of the Chinese Navy calls on fighters jets to "fly even closer to U.S. surveillance aircraft."
- April 2015: China was in the middle of transforming Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef into artificial islands, in addition to creating other small islands in the region. According to the U.N., artificial islands do not afford the occupying nation territorial waters.
- Sept. 2015: China completed a 3,125 meter runway on the newly created Fiery Cross reef.
- Oct. 2015: USS Lassen passes through waters around the artificial islands that China has claimed our sovereignty.