Both the United States and China are showing the world the presence of a potential flash point between the two nations with increased presence in already disputed areas in the South China Sea. There are no shortages of countries bothered by China’s territorial claims and a number of them are U.S. allies including Japan and the Philippines.

New Cold War In The South China Sea

“Cold War” ramping up with visits from high ranking military officials on both sides

Earlier this week, as reported by various state media outlets, China’s Fan Changlong, one of the vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission which controls China’s military visited a number of disputed and man made (China) islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Not to be outdone, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter flew to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis for a two-hour visit while making a stop in the Philippines. The ship was sailing 70 miles west of the Philippines island of Luzon.

China has consistently criticized the presence of the United States Navy in the arena and South China Sea, stopping just short of calling it a provocation. This is something that the United States firmly denies, but isn’t backing away from.

“What’s new is not an American carrier in this region,” Carter said during his visit which saw him speaking with sailors as well as observing flight operations.  “What’s new is the context of tension which exists which we want to reduce.”

With about $5 trillion in trade floated through the South China Sea each year, the United States clearly has no interest in allowing China to bully its neighbors with calls of sovereignty by China over nearly the entire expanse of the body of water.

On Friday’s visit, Carter was accompanied by Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

China’s claims that the U.S. is militarizing the South China Sea

You can see China’s point, well, to a point. The United States frequently launches “freedom of navigation” patrols in the area and pushes those patrols to within 12 miles of disputed islands claimed by China. Thing is just because China says that the islands are theirs doesn’t make it so and 12-miles is acceptable sailing distance.

That said, 12-nautical miles is quite close given the range of modern weaponry.

China accused the U.S. of a “Cold War mentality” this week after Carter announced joint patrols with the Philippine Navy in the South China Sea on Thursday.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the U.S. move was proof of “who was the real promoter of the militarization of the South China Sea.”

“In reality, what the U.S. is probably talking about is military freedom of navigation and safety. If that’s the case, then many countries, not only in this region, will hope that these big countries can act in accordance with international law,” he continued in a recent briefing with reporters.

This was something that was quickly refuted by Carter on his nearly week long visit to the region.

“We have been here for decade upon decade,” Carter said. “The only reason that question even comes up is because of what has gone on over the last year and that’s a question of Chinese behavior.”

While the two will likely continue this “cat and mouse” game, there is little doubt that the area represents the serious possibility of a mistake that could lead to a potential conflict, if only a short-lived one.