China lashes out as US Navy destroyer sails near disputed islands

Special to BenarNews
2022.07.13
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China lashes out as US Navy destroyer sails near disputed islands The USS Benfold is an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer.
U.S. Navy

A U.S. Navy Freedom of Navigation Operation near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea drew a strong reaction on Wednesday from Chinese military officials who said the American warship had “illegally trespassed” into its waters.

A spokesman from the Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), whose areas of responsibility include the South China Sea, said in a press release that the command “organized air, naval forces to track and warn away USS Benfold destroyer that illegally trespassed into Chinese territorial waters off Xisha islands.”

Xisha is the Chinese name for the Paracel archipelago, claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan but entirely under Chinese control.

The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, meanwhile, released a statement saying its Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law.”

The USS Benfold then “exited the excessive claim and continued operations in the South China Sea,” according to the statement which said the U.S. “challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant.”

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations,” the 7th Fleet said.

“Under international law, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States, including their warships, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea,” it said.

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A MH-60 Sea Hawk conducts flight operations aboard the USS Benfold. [U.S. Navy]
China’s illegal claims

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam hold competing claims over parts of the South China Sea and some islands in it but the Chinese claims are by far the most expansive, covering up to 90 percent of the sea.

Beijing also developed islands it occupies in the South China Sea to back up claims and has fully militarized at least three of them.

The U.S. Navy has challenged China’s self-proclaimed territorial waters around the Paracel Islands.

An international tribunal in 2016 ruled that the Paracels are in fact not islands and the occupying nation – China – cannot claim territorial sea around them. 

In its statement, the U.S. 7th Fleet said by conducting this FONOP, “the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what the PRC [People’s Republic of China] can lawfully claim as its territorial sea.”

“U.S. forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century,” it said.

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An F/A-18F Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan, July 13, 2022. [U.S. Navy]
In another development, a U.S. carrier strike group led by the USS Ronald Reagan has moved into the South China Sea.

The U.S. Navy said in a press release the strike group is operating in the South China Sea “for the first time during its 2022 deployment.”

It includes the USS Ronald Reagan, the navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier. The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76) are involved in the operation, according to the release.

“While in the South China Sea, the strike group is conducting maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units,” it said.

“Carrier operations in the South China Sea are part of the U.S. Navy’s routine operations in the Indo-Pacific.”

China’s South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) think-tank said that, according to the latest flight trajectory of the carrier-borne C-2A Greyhound cargo aircraft, the USS Ronald Reagan is sailing on Wednesday just south of the Spratly islands, about 1,000 km (620 miles) from the Vietnamese city of Da Nang.

Vietnamese sources last week told Radio Free Asia, an online affiliate of BenarNews, that the aircraft carrier plans to visit Da Nang in the second half of July, an event that would draw criticism from China.

The U.S. Navy declined to confirm the visit, saying “as a matter of policy, we don’t discuss future operations.”

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