The South China Sea is one of the world's most contested areas. Beijing's extensive territorial claims in the waters, which include islands, banks, reefs and maritime ways, are challenged by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.
‘Freedom of navigation' is codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the the Sea, among articles that define the rights and responsibilities of nations regarding the use of the world's oceans and marine natural resources. The convention has been in effect since 1994 and currently has more than 165 participating parties.
According to the US State Department, "US policy since 1983 provides that the US will exercise and assert its navigation and overflight rights and freedoms on a worldwide basis in a manner that is consistent with the balance of interests reflected in the Law of the Sea convention."
Despite Beijing's recent expansive ambitions, however, the country appears to be taking on a more conciliatory approach.
"As we speak, the navies of ASEAN are en route to Zhanjiang in China for the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise," Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said, the Asia Times reported Friday, after a decision was made to conduct joint drills at a recent meeting of ASEAN defense ministers in Singapore.
The Defense Minister also noted that ASEAN (which includes Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Brunei and Laos) was planning to conduct maritime exercises with the US next year for the first time.
Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, told Sputnik on Friday that, "part of the reason this happened is the perception that Trump does not see Southeast Asia (SEA) as a priority."
"China feels more comfortable and eager to negotiate with Southeast Asia when US is not paying attention. China is making progress on the South China Sea front with SEA. It definitely sends clear political messages that China and SEA are working together just fine in terms of the South China Sea. And the implied message is that as long as China and SEA are fine, US has less regional support, hence legitimate ground to assert a role and position," Yun said.
Earlier this month, the destroyer USS Decatur conducted a "freedom of navigation operation," in the region, Sputnik reported at the time. The Decatur was confronted by an unnamed Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy Luyang-class destroyer, which ordered it to leave Chinese territory, closing to within 135 feet of the Decatur.
In late September, the US sent B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers though the South China Sea, exercises that were immediately followed by joint exercises with Japanese planes over the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, Sputnik reported.
Following those flights, Beijing warned the US that it would take "necessary measures" to defend Chinese interests, conducting live-fire drills in the waterway.
At the Hudson Institute earlier this month, US Vice President Mike Pence issued a warning to China that the US would not back down from what it perceives as Chinese threats in the South China Sea.