Last week, America had a strong message for China over the South China Sea: The vast waterway isn't China's sea. It's an international sea open to all countries and vessels, and America is determined and ready to keep it that way.

The two countries have different views on the South China Sea. China considers the South China Sea its sea, thanks to a string of tiny artificial islands built in disputed waters with every country that borders the vast waterway. And wants every vessel that sails though to ask for its permission.

America considers the South China Sea an international sea, where ships can sail freely without permission from everyone. It's a position Washington is determined to defend with its navy and the navy of its allies. So they have been conducting routine freedom of navigation exercises, including a couple of exercises last week by the USS Benfold.

But there was something different with last week's exercises. Washington made it clear what the "rules of engagement" are. For instance, a close-up shot of the USS Benfold, taken by a nearby PLA vessel, showed that it had placed its weapons and a fire-control radar system in default positions, according to a Global Times editorial.

"It was the first time the PLA Southern Theater Command had released photos in a statement on its operation of warning away foreign warships in the South China Sea," the editorial said. "The U.S. has been repeatedly sending warships to waters off Xisha and Nansha in the South China Sea in a provocative manner, and every time the ships were warned away by the PLA Southern Theater Command."

Washington's display of the "rules of engagement" comes after the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called China to abide by its international law obligations. And re-affirmed Washington's position that any attack on the Philippines would invite a U.S. military response in the South China Sea.

What's the message the photo sends to Beijing? "That Washington is militarily ready and determined not to tolerate any provocation by Beijing in international waters," Yannis Tsinas, a former Washington military diplomat analyst, told International Business Times in a telephone interview. "It's the only way to deter China's aggression in the region," he adds. In addition, he thinks that China isn't ready to challenge the U.S. on the open seas, as it is still building its military capabilities that have yet to be tested on the battlefield. So all it will be doing in the meantime is just keep on making noise for the sake of it.

That could assure that peace stands an excellent chance to prevail in the South China Sea for the time being. That's necessary for the region's prosperity, including China's, which relies heavily on moving its merchandise through the vast waterway.

Beijing claims historical rights to vast swathes of the South China Sea, including islands, reefs and atolls in the Spratlys
Beijing claims historical rights to vast swathes of the South China Sea, including islands, reefs and atolls in the Spratlys AFP / TED ALJIBE
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