If you want to start a world war, a good way to do it is to mix the escalating conflict between two of the world’s greatest military powers with the grievances of a half-dozen smaller countries over territorial claims. That’s the current situation in the South China Sea, the massive body of water that stretches more than 4,000km (2,485 miles) from mainland China in the north to Indonesia in the south – about the same distance between London and Chicago. China has claimed the vast majority of the South China Sea as its exclusive territory, including areas claimed by six other governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – that consider them part of their own exclusive economic zones. A map of the conflicting claims can be seen in this graphic presentation, while the history of China’s territorial disputes, including in the South China Sea, is explained in this video. China considers the South China Sea one of its “core” interests, of equal importance as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, meaning it is ready to go to war to defend it. It has marked the territory by a “nine dash line” on its maps, and even on its passports, angering its neighbours. China needs the oil and mineral wealth hidden beneath the South China Sea to supply its rapid economic recovery, as well as the fishing catch needed to feed the country’s 1.4 billion stomachs. An international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China did not have the right to claim the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, a ruling that China has pointedly rejected. To secure this vast sea area, China has turned uninhabited atolls and half-submerged rock formations into forward military bases, as personally directed by President Xi Jinping. Regular Chinese sea patrols monitor the area, driving away fishing boats from other nations from what it considers its exclusive fishing area. The intrusion of China into what other Asian nations consider their sovereign territory has caused tensions in the region to ratchet up, with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) increasingly pushing back, at times with violent confrontations. The US has flatly rejected Chinese claims to the South China Sea, and has dramatically stepped up its military presence in the area. Each side has warned the other of the dangers of further escalation, with the US sanctioning Chinese firms that helped build China’s island outposts. Rarely a week goes by without a US warship sailing near Chinese held outputs as part a “freedom of navigation” exercise, shadowed by Chinese vessels the entire way. Confrontations have brought warships from both nations within a few metres of each other, a dangerous situation that could easily get out of hand. Tensions have ratched up recently, with the Chinese and US navies holding exercises in the region at the same time. In a provocation move, the Chinese test fired several of its “aircraft carrier killer” missiles in a clear warning to the US to back off its “interference” in the South China Sea. And some Asean nations are starting to push back against Chinese “intrusions” into their territorial waters, threatening to draw the US deeper into local disputes, though the group as a whole is trying to avoid picking sides in the US-China confrontation. The latest incident occurred this week, with Indonesia’s foreign ministry lodging an official protest after a Chinese coastguard ship spent two days sailing through Indonesia territorial waters. Chinese military commands have been ordered not to shoot first in any confrontation with the US military, but with heavily armed warships and planes constantly patrolling the area, even a small error in judgment could lead to a shooting war. And with the US presidential election less than two months away, there is no sign that tensions between two of the world’s largest militaries will de-escalate any time soon. 60 second catch-up Explainer: South China Sea: the dispute that could start a military conflict Explainer: Why are tensions running high in the South China Sea dispute? Deep Dives US Navy footage of warships’ near collision in South China Sea New footage of a 2018 encounter between a Chinese and US warship has been released to the Post following a freedom of information request Experts say it appears to show the Chinese PLA crew preparing for a collision A newly-released US Navy video of the tense encounter between a Chinese and US warship in the South China Sea in late 2018 offers an indication of how seriously the Chinese side were prepared for a collision with the US vessel in the contested waterway. In the footage of the incident, which at the time caused heated exchanges between Washington and Beijing, Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy crew can be seen preparing buoys designed to absorb impact and protect the hull of their ship in the event of a collision between a Chinese Luyang destroyer and the USS Decatur. Read the full story here. Chinese military told not to fire first shot in stand-off with US Sources say that troops have been given orders not to escalate situation as both sides step up their activities in the disputed waters Beijing said to be keen to cool the ‘tense and dangerous situation’ and agreed to a conversation between defence ministers after initially snubbing the request China has told its service personnel “not to fire the first shot” as Beijing looks to de-escalate tensions with the United States in the South China Sea, sources familiar with the situation told the South China Morning Post. Both sides have stepped up their operations in the disputed waters, increasing the risk of incidents that spiral out of control, but Beijing does not want to give American hawks the opportunity to escalate things further. Read the full story here. China-US close encounters ‘raise conflict risk in South China Sea’ Warships from both countries came within 100m of each other in April, Chinese military insider says Washington and Beijing need to find a way to stop such incidents escalating and going out of control, maritime analyst says China and the US are running the risk of conflict and should come up with a way to manage such crises as their warships engage in close encounters in the South China Sea, according to maritime strategy specialists. A Chinese military insider said that in one incident in April, vessels from both nations came as close as 100 metres of each other. Read the full story here. 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