Beijing yesterday accused Washington of “provocative” conduct after two US warships earlier this week sailed near islands claimed by Beijing, adding to tensions between the global powers.
The US Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed South China Sea, to which Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims over all or parts of the waterway.
The USS Gabrielle Giffords littoral combat ship on Wednesday sailed near Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and the USS Wayne E. Meyer guided-missile destroyer on Thursday passed the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), the navy said.
“USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) challenged the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and also contested China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” Commander Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman of the US Seventh Fleet, which is stationed in Japan, told reporters on Thursday.
“USS Gabrielle Giffords demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law,” she added.
China dispatched military vessels to identify and monitor the US warships and warned them to leave, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command said in a statement yesterday.
“Recently, the US has used the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation’ to frequently send warships to the South China Sea area to cause trouble,” it said. “We urge the US to cease this kind of provocative, risky conduct to prevent unforeseen incidents.”
Mommsen said that the operations were designed to “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.”
Washington and Beijing are locked in a bruising trade war and have tussled over diplomatic issues, including a bill passed by the US Congress this week in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
China has laid claim to nearly all of the South China Sea and has built numerous military outposts on the small islands and atolls of the region, angering other claimants.
In the past few months, the US military has stepped up its freedom of navigation operations in the region, irking Beijing, but not sparking any direct confrontation thus far.
China has effectively drawn a property line around the whole of the Paracels archipelago to claim the entire territory.
However, the US has said that does not accord with international law on archipelagos and territorial seas.
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