China is more likely to swarm us than shoot at us:
China believes it can handle American warship visits to the South China Sea without triggering a disastrous (especially for China) war by quietly mobilizing a growing fleet of civilian cargo and fishing vessels. These unarmed ships are used, usually in groups, to block the moment of unwelcome foreign commercial or military ships.
Assuming we actually are conducting freedom of navigation operations, this is a problem I have worried about:
Let's not have one of our ships disabled with a propeller fouled in fishing nets and then set upon by Chinese coast guard vessels to tow it to port in a "rescue.
And before the mission, I was worried about China's "civilian" ships:
We should be prepared to disable Chinese civilian vessels ordered by the Chinese government to ram or otherwise interfere with our missions. I doubt China would escalate to Coast Guard or even navy vessels, but you never know. ...
No American ship sent to challenge the illegal 12-mile limits around artificial islands should go alone. It should have plenty of backup nearby.
And we should have means short of force to keep Chinese non-military vessels away from our ship carrying out the challenge.
Heck, I'd put a sizable Marine contingent on whatever ship we send in case the Chinese try to board the vessel after disabling it by ramming or fouling the propellers.
What do we do if fishing vessels swarm our warship and manage to foul our ship's propeller? Or even try to board our ship? Do we shoot at the Chinese "civilians" who have been essentially conscripted for an attack?
We have to carry out these missions. But let's be prepared for everything China might throw in our way.