Key events that led to the latest US-China confrontation in the South China Sea

A Sea Hawk helicopter launches during flight operations in South China Sea, on July 17, 2020.
A Sea Hawk helicopter launches during flight operations in South China Sea, on July 17, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

China's most recent firing of four ballistic missiles into the South China Sea in retaliation for a flyover by an American spy plane was just one of the many provocations between the world's two most powerful countries in the contentious waters in recent years.

China has laid claims to large swathes of sea and land formations off its coasts while, in opposition, the United States has increased the frequency of its Freedom of Navigation Operations (Fonops) to a level not seen in recent times.

Here are some of the events in the past two months which led to the latest clash:

July 4 - Two US aircraft carriers - the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups - arrived in the South China Sea and held competing exercises with the Chinese navy.

The two carrier strike groups carried out dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea -the US Navy's first since 2014 - in response to China's military drills on July 1-5 in the disputed Paracel Islands, known as Xisha in China.

Vietnam and the Philippines also protested the Chinese military drills.

July 14 - The US deployed a guided-missile destroyer, USS Ralph Johnson, near the Spratly Islands, a network of islands and man-made atolls in the South China Sea created by China. This came a day after the White House rejected nearly all of China's maritime claims in the South China Sea.

July 21 - USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan conducted their second dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea "to reinforce our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific", the US Navy said. The Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group then carried on with a separate trilateral exercise with the Australian and Japanese forces in the Philippine Sea.

Japan sent a destroyer while the Australian task force was led by one of its two amphibious assault ships.

That same week, China responded by conducting a series of military exercises in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.

Aug 1 - The USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group began a military drill off the coast of northern Japan with land-based US Navy and Air Force units that week. The integrated training operations include air-to-air operations, combat search and rescue drills, and air defence exercises to increase interoperability and joint force capability.

 
 
 

Aug 10 - A day after US Health Secretary Alex Azar arrived in Taiwan on a controversial visit, China sent two fighter aircraft briefly to the midline of the Taiwan Strait. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) also held live combat drills in the Taiwan Strait "to safeguard national sovereignty", the PLA said.

Aug 14 - The USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group returned to the South China Sea for a series of air defence exercises after a joint drill with Japan. The Carrier Strike Group was composed of Reagan, destroyer ships USS Rafael Peralta and USS Mustin, and cruiser USS Antietam.

Aug 16 - The PLA responds by published a video showing a Hong Kong-based warship, dubbed Huizhou, launching cannons and torpedoes into the South China Sea, SCMP reported.

Aug 18 - The US Navy sent USS Mustin - operating as part of the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group - through the Taiwan Straits.

Aug 21 - In a highly unusual move, China's maritime authorities begin to issue notices about simultaneous military drills in multiple locations in the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Gulf, SCMP reported based on information from its sources.

Aug 22 - The PLA began five days of military exercises in the Yellow Sea off Lianyungang, a city in the Jiangsu province.

Aug 24 - The Chinese navy held live-firing exercises in two areas in the South China Sea off the Hainan province over the week, concurrent to the exercises in the Yellow Sea and a coastguard drill off the coast of Hebei in the Bohai Sea, which would end in September. Experts said China has almost never conducted simultaneous exercises in multiple locations, which in this case was a show of its combat readiness.

Aug 26 - The US dispatched spy planes over a live-fire Chinese military drill, including a U-2 which entered a declared no-fly zone without permission. The reconnaissance aircraft flew over the Bohai Sea where a Chinese aircraft carrier was taking part in the exercises.

Aug 26 - In retaliation, China launched four missiles into the South China Sea. The missiles were fired into an area between the Hainan province and the Paracel Islands. This includes the DF-21D, said to be the world's first anti-ship ballistic missile with the ability to foil the Aegis Combat System used by the US and allies in the region. The "carrier killer" has a range of between 1,450 and 1,550km.