The USS Decatur operating in the South China Sea. The US Navy destroyer was involved in the near collision with the Chinese missile destroyer Luoyang. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Quinlan/U.S. Navy)

The recent near-collision between the US warship Decatur and Chinese Luoyang missile destroyer in the South China Sea (SCS) highlights the rising danger of confrontation between the US and China, and the risk posed to other nations in the region. While such close calls may become more common as both sides seek to assert their power, fears of dangerous escalation must be tempered with acknowledgement of the current state of affairs in the disputed waters.

For the Southeast Asian states that have been caught between the two giants over the last few years, one immediate concern is the inadvertent escalation that could result from close encounters of this kind. It is for this reason that, following the Decatur incident, ASEAN defense chiefs raised collective concerns over US and China military activities in the South China Sea at the recent ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus.

At the heart of current US-China tension over the SCS, of course, lays competing interests and ultimately irreconcilable visions for the future of these waters and the broader region. Read more