On October 9, 2020, the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) close to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea (SCS). As is typical with such movements, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) reacted with anger at the US Navy, as Beijing views these waters as part of its territorial holdings.
Col. Zhang Nandong, a spokesperson for the PLAN with ties to the Central Military Commission (CMC), declared in an official WeChat post, "It is a naked navigational hegemony and military provocation... We demand the US immediately stop such provocative actions, (and) strictly control and restrict military operations in the sea and air to avoid accidents." This sentiment was echoed in other outlets, including the Global Times, an international news agency widely seen as a mouthpiece for Beijing.
The United States routinely conducts FONOPs in the South China Sea in order to challenge the PRC's excessive, and arguably illegal, maritime claims. Since March of 2020, The Intelligence Ledger has noted an increased use of US Naval assets by Washington in the SCS as a way of sending a message to Beijing: the United States does not recognize Chinese claims in the strategically important body of water. Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher with the Rand Corporation, believes that this is result of the new operational blueprint being used by the Department of Defense (DOD), "US naval forces in the South China Sea are likely to carry out operations and activities in unusual patterns that are inconsistent with past, predictable patterns."
The Intelligence Ledger assesses that such FONOPs will continue to be routine until the People's Republic halts its expansionist policies in the South China Sea. Yet, as Chinese naval power continues to grow at seemingly unfathomable speeds, the message a single Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer sends will eventually weaken. In turn, this will prompt larger deployments and stronger actions by both sides.