Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET on 2020-04-29
A guided missile cruiser sailed through the Spratly Islands on Wednesday, the U.S. Navy’s second freedom of navigation operation in two days amid heightened tension in the South China Sea.
The “innocent passage” maneuver by the USS Bunker Hill followed a separate operation by the destroyer USS Barry on Tuesday near the Paracel Islands, which lie farther north, the U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement.
“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 and the right of innocent passage of all ships,” spokeswoman Cmdr. Reann Mommsen said.
It was the latest in a series of challenges by Washington to what it calls “unlawful” claims in the South China Sea. China claims sovereignty over most of the area, despite competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China’s military claimed its navy and air forces on Tuesday had expelled the USS Barry from the area. The People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, responsible for China’s military presence in the South China Sea, accused the U.S. ship of trespassing into Chinese territorial waters.
The U.S. Navy disputed China’s account of what happened. USNI News, a publication associated with the U.S. Naval Institute, cited a U.S. Navy official as saying that the USS Barry left the area peaceably after completing its freedom of navigation operation, and that no nearby ships or aircraft acted in an “unprofessional” way.
China has been accused of a spate of bullying behavior in the South China Sea this month, including involvement in the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat and then sending a survey ship and China Coast Guard escorts into Malaysian and Vietnamese waters to pressure Malaysia out of energy exploration within its exclusive economic zone.
That prompted diplomatic protests from other claimants and shows of force by the U.S. Another American warship, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, sailed near the site of this survey on Tuesday and U.S. warships participated in a joint exercise with the Royal Australian Navy in the same area on April 18.
Vessel-tracking software shows the Chinese survey ship was continuing its operations off Malaysia on Wednesday, alongside a small fleet of China Coast Guard ships and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia. The survey has moved to an area jointly claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia.
Meanwhile, ships from Vietnam’s Fisheries Resources Surveillance agency moved close to the area Tuesday.
Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst for the U.S.-funded RAND Corp. think tank, said the U.S. Navy’s recent activity in the South China Sea is tied to China’s perceived opportunism in the region while other claimants are distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The U.S. clearly believes the coronavirus offers Beijing the ability to distract while consolidating gains in the South China Sea. Hence, we have witnessed a recent uptick in U.S. naval activity in the form of FONOPs in the region – two in just this week,” Grossman said, using the abbreviation for freedom of navigation operations.
As is typically the case after such maneuvers, the U.S. 7th Fleet said the FONOPS were not aimed at any one nation.
Mommsen said Wednesday’s operation, “upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.”
China has been demonstrating its military might in various ways of late. The Liaoning aircraft carrier and five other warships sailed this week through the Miyako Strait into the East China Sea, according to a Japanese Defense Ministry statement Tuesday identifying the ships.
The Philippines recently protested over China’s navy reportedly training a radar gun – used for target acquisition – on the Philippine Navy ship BRP Conrado Yap while it traversed the South China Sea. The Philippine defense secretary this week downplayed the February incident, although its foreign ministry recently submitted a diplomatic protest to China over the incident.