The US Navy’s Seventh Fleet said the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur had conducted freedom of navigation operations in the vicinity of the Paracels, which are claimed by Beijing, Taiwan and Vietnam.
“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,” it said in a statement.
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It said Beijing, Taiwan and Vietnam had imposed unlawful restrictions on innocent passage over the disputed waters, and the operation was also aimed at challenging China’s territorial claims.
“By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea, and that China’s claimed straight baselines around the Paracel Islands are inconsistent with international law,” it said.
“US forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century. They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity.”
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy said the US had violated Chinese maritime sovereignty and it had expelled the vessel.
“It has also seriously damaged peace and stability in the South China Sea,” a Southern Theatre Command spokesman said. “The US behaviour violates international law and basic norms of international relations, increases regional security risks, and is prone to misunderstandings, misjudgments and accidents at sea. It is unprofessional and irresponsible.”
But the US said the destroyer had not been “expelled”.
“The PLA’s statement is the latest in a long string of [Chinese] actions to misrepresent lawful US maritime operations and asserts its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense [of] Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea,” it said. “[China’s] behaviour stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
The US destroyer sailed through the South China Sea after passing through the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday, in what the US said was a demonstration of its commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
China’s Eastern Theatre Command on Wednesday called the strait passage “a provocation”, saying it sent “wrong signals” to Taiwanese independence-leaning forces.
While the warship transited the strait, US anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a spy plane flew over the South China Sea, according to the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative.
The US has conducted three freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea this year, with two of them passing through the Paracels. It conducted 10 such operations over the disputed waters last year.
Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the US was “normalising” FONOPs, ensuring it will not elicit unwarranted reactions from the region.
“Carrying out FONOPs is a long-standing thing since the 1970s, and comprises a diplomatic component as well as physical assertion,” he said. “Understandably, Washington would want such missions to be viewed as normal, principled and not specifically targeted for other political reasons.”
Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor, said it was normal for China to dispel the US vessel.
“I don’t think it will necessarily lead to a misfire,” he said. “It has just become more normal.”
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang
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