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James Stavridis

A Cold War Is Heating Up in the South China Sea

U.S.-China tensions over trade and the coronavirus epidemic are playing out dangerously on contested waters.

China’s naval ambition.

China’s naval ambition.

Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

I spent most of my seagoing career in the Pacific, and sailed many times through the humid waters of the South China Sea. It’s a big body of water, the size of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico combined. The sea bottom is full of oil and natural gas. Nearly 40% of the world’s international shipping passes through it.

China wrongly claims most of it as territorial seas. And as relations between the U.S. and China deteriorate into coronavirus finger-pointing and election-year posturing, the chances for a conflict in those waters are rising. In recent weeks, several U.S. warships — including a destroyer I commanded in the early 1990s, the Barry — have been confronted by the Chinese while conducting patrols. Why has this body of water become such a flashpoint, and what can be done to avoid an incident that could set off something bigger?