John reported on Wednesday about the Chinese launching one of their “aircraft carrier killer missiles” into the South China Sea, presumably as some sort of warning to the United States. A warning over precisely what remains unknown, since the American Navy is operating in international waters and keeping the sea lanes clear for commercial traffic. Yet the Chinese continue to insist that they own the Paracel Islands and the waters surrounding them, so they’re looking to flex their muscle.

What they’re flexing at the moment, however, is their mouths. At the conclusion of the U.S. Navy exercises in the region, the Chinese claimed to have “forced away” one of our Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers out of the waters surrounding the Paracel Islands. The claim is pretty much laughable, but the Chinese are clearly trying to prove a point and make themselves look tough in the international press. (Newsweek)

The Chinese military said it forced a U.S. warship away from disputed islands in the South China Sea, where both sides have defied military warnings to stay out of sensitive areas amid heightened military tensions between the two powers.

Senior Colonel Li Huamin, spokesperson for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, announced Thursday that the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin had “trespassed into the Chinese territorial waters” off the Paracel Islands, known as Xisha to China and as Hoang Sa to Vietnam, which also claims sovereignty over them. In response to the U.S. movement, Colonel Li said China summoned a combined sea and air force that “warned it away.”

Li, who reiterated his country’s “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters,” issued a stern warning to U.S. forces operating in this contested region.

This posturing by the Chinese didn’t go over very well with our military. U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson Navy Lieutenant James Adams told Newsweek that the USS Mustin wasn’t “expelled” from any nation’s territory. She was conducting lawful maritime operations in international waters and continued on with her mission uninterrupted.

Unfortunately, this appears to be only the latest in a series of tense confrontations between the PRC and the United States. And it’s all over the question of the rights to a series of “islands” that are little more than chunks of rock and coral that jut out of the South China Sea if the waves aren’t too rough. Had China not started construction projects out there to militarize them, the Paracels wouldn’t be of interest to anyone beyond the occasional seabirds that nest there sometimes.

Those islands have bounced back and forth between the French, the Vietnamese and the Chinese for ages. Until the recent military construction began, nobody was able to do much of anything with them since they’re so small and frequently get inundated during typhoons. But now we’re apparently expected to fight over them yet again (at least verbally, if not militarily) because we’re human beings and I guess that’s what we do. Claiming sovereign control over a massive amount of “territorial waters” around these rocks seems like the height of idiocy, but now that they have some military value, I suppose this was unavoidable.

Frankly, I wouldn’t give two hoots if everyone just let China have the Paracels were it not for the assumed control of territorial waters. The South China Sea is an important international trade route, and it needs to remain open to commercial shipping and other uses. Handing China the ability to shut down those lanes entirely isn’t a plausible response.