Seoul, South Korea
A day after China said it drove a US Navy destroyer away from Beijing-claimed waters in the South China Sea, the US 7th Fleet said the same warship sailed through those waters to challenge the Chinese claims.
The “guided-missile destroyer USS Milius asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law,” a statement from 7th Fleet spokesperson Lt. jg. Luka Bakic said.
The warship conducted what the US Navy calls a “freedom of navigation operation,” or FONOP, Bakic said, “challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Vietnam.”
All three claim the Paracels, known as the Xishas in China, a group of about 130 small atolls, the biggest of which are home to Chinese military bases.
The US statement also said the Milius challenged China’s claim to “straight baselines enclosing the Paracels,” meaning Beijing’s claims to waters between the islands, even when those waters are outside the internationally recognized 12-nautical-mile limit from a coastline for territorial waters.
China claims almost all of the vast South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including many distant islands and inlets in the disputed body of water, many of which Beijing has militarized.
Other claimants besides Taiwan and Vietnam include Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, which has seen a UN tribunal rule in its favor in a dispute with Beijing over islands in the Spratly group.
But Beijing has rejected the UN ruling, and built up military bases on those disputed islands in the Spratlys – known as the Nansha Islands in China – as it has done in the Paracels.
On Friday, China reacted angrily to the presence of the US warship near the islands it claims.
“The actions of the U.S. military have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security and seriously violated international law,” Tan Kefei, spokesperson for the Defense Ministry, said in a statement.
“The guided-missile destroyer USS Milius broke into China’s Xisha territorial waters again without the approval of the Chinese government, undermining peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Tan said.
On Thursday, Beijing said the Milius was driven away from the Paracels by People’s Liberation Army forces, a claim that was called “false” by the US 7th Fleet.
Beijing has made similar claims after other FONOPs, which the US conducts regularly around the Paracels and the Spratlys to the south.
The Paracels are located east of Da Nang, Vietnam, and south of China’s Hainan Island.
Beijing regularly makes statements that any US Navy operations in the South China Sea inflame tensions and show that Washington, and its partners who keep a naval presence in the waterway, are damaging the region’s security.
The area around the Paracels was the site of a tense encounter between a Chinese warplane and US reconnaissance jet in February that was witnessed by a CNN crew.
Then and now, Washington is consistent in its statements about its South China Sea operations.
“The operations demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows – regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events,” Friday’s statement, like many others before it, said.
In recent years, the South China Sea has emerged as a major potential flashpoint in the Asia Pacific.
Not only does the strategic waterway hold vast resources of fish, oil and gas, but about a third of global shipping passes through it – worth about $3.4 trillion in 2016, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) China Power Project.
China also conducts regular military exercises in much of the South China Sea and maintains a large presence of coast guard and fishing vessels in the disputed waters – which has frequently stoked tensions with other claimants.