Leave or bear consequences, China warns US destroyer near disputed South China Sea islands

·3-min read

China has warned a US warship to leave the vicinity of the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea or “bear all consequences” on the fifth anniversary of an international tribunal’s rejection of most of Beijing’s claims over the resource-rich waters.

The Paracels – called the Xisha Islands by Beijing – are also claimed by Vietnam and the self-ruled island of Taiwan. A Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk by a Chinese ship near the islands in April last year.

Tian Junli, spokesman for the Southern Theatre Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said the guided missile destroyer USS Benfold had been warned to leave after it “trespassed” into Chinese waters on Monday near the islands.

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“The US military’s actions seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously damaged the peace and stability of the South China Sea and seriously violated international law and the norms of international relations – more ironclad proof it is engaging in navigational hegemony to cause the militarisation of the South China Sea,” he said.

“We strongly condemn and resolutely oppose this, and we urge the US side to immediately stop their provocative actions and to strictly control their maritime and air activities. Otherwise, the US side will need to bear all consequences that arise from this.”

The Seventh Fleet said the USS Benfold had conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) on Monday near the Paracel Islands to challenge “the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam” and China’s claims to straight baselines around the islands.

“USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters,” it said. “The PLA Navy’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful US maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea.”

The USS Benfold was in Guam for joint exercises with the Singaporean navy from June 21 to July 7, according to an official press release.

The Chinese warning to the US coincides with the anniversary of a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal which rejected most of China’s claims in the South China Sea. Beijing has consistently rejected the tribunal’s finding. The US and Canada used the anniversary to urge China to abide by the decision, determined under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Amid strained relations between Beijing and Washington, there have been fears that the South China Sea could emerge as a potential flashpoint. China has taken more aggressive steps to assert its claims and the US has conducted regular drills and transits through the contested waters.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged China in a statement late on Sunday to “cease its provocative behaviour”, adding that the US was bound by its mutual defence treaty with the Philippines – another claimant country in the waters – to defend against a potential Chinese attack in the South China Sea.

Tian, from the Chinese Southern Theatre Command, said in his statement that the US was “absolutely the one creating security risks in the South China Sea”.

“The theatre’s troops will continue to maintain a high state of alertness to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security in the South China Sea,” he said.

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