ABOARD THE U.S.S. CHANCELLORSVILLE, IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
The Navy cruiser was in disputed waters off the Spratly Islands when the threat warning sounded over the ship’s intercom: “Away the Snoopie team. … Away the Snoopie team.”
As the sailors of the “Snoopie team” went on alert and took up positions throughout the ship, a Chinese naval frigate appeared on the horizon, bearing down on the cruiser Chancellorsville last week from the direction of Mischief Reef. More alarming, a Chinese helicopter that had taken off from the frigate was heading straight for the U.S. cruiser.
“This is U.S. Navy warship on guard,” Ensign Anthony Giancana said into his radio from the ship’s bridge, trying to contact the helicopter. “Come up on Frequency 121.5 or 243.”
Ominously, there was no response.
Here in the hot azure waters off the Spratly and Paracel Islands – which encompass reefs, banks and cays – the United States and China are jockeying for dominance in the Pacific. From Mischief Reef, where China is building a military base in defiance of claims by Vietnam and the Philippines, to Scarborough Shoal, where the Chinese are building and equipping outposts on disputed territory far from the mainland, the two naval forces are on an almost continuous state of alert.