Epic change & upheaval - Looking back: Events that shaped the year

8. Clash of the Titans over S. China Sea

An aerial view shows the Pagasa (Hope) Island, which belongs to the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea.
An aerial view shows the Pagasa (Hope) Island, which belongs to the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

2015 was a year of tragedies, disasters and terror. Some, like the quake in Nepal, were over almost instantly while others, like the European migrant crisis and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, were dramas that unfolded daily. But there were also uplifting moments, such as the Myanmar general election and the Paris climate deal.

In the early hours of Oct 27, the USS Lassen, an American guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of two Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea - triggering weeks of heated diplomatic exchanges between the United States and China.

The move - called a freedom of navigation patrol by the US and an "irresponsible" and unprecedented act of provocation by the Chinese - caught many off-guard.

The US had dropped hints just hours earlier that the operation would take place and subsequently avoided saying anything at all about the voyage apart from confirming that it did take place.

Still, during a year when tensions between the US and China spiked in the region over Beijing's aggressive land reclamation works, the naval operation was perhaps the marquee clash.

For much of the year, the US had urged China to stop its aggressive island-building activity in contested waters. While other claimants had done land reclamation of their own, Beijing's projects were noteworthy for their scale and speed.

The USS Lassen's voyage effectively made concrete what had been purely verbal exchanges.

The two sides clashed over the matter again during the Asean Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit a month later. In fact, Asia-Pacific defence ministers meeting ahead of the two summits scrapped plans for their customary joint declaration as they could not agree on language on the South China Sea.

All in all, it has been a tumultuous year in the South China Sea, and it remains unclear if 2016 will be any better.

Jeremy Au Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Clash of the Titans over S. China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe