A United States Navy guided missile destroyer challenged Chinese claims of sovereignty in and around islands in the South China Sea on Thursday, with a Navy statement saying such claims violate international law and “pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas.”
The USS Benfold sailed around the Paracel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in China, in what the Navy calls a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), Lt. Mark Langford, spokesperson for the US 7th Fleet, said in the statement.
The Paracels are a collection of 130 small coral islands and reefs in the northwestern part of the South China Sea. They have no indigenous population to speak of, only Chinese military garrisons amounting to 1,400 people, according to the CIA Factbook.
The islands are also claimed by Vietnam and self-ruled Taiwan but in Chinese hands for more than 46 years. The islands have been fortified with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military installations.
The US Navy statement said the Benfold also challenged the claims of Vietnam and Taiwan.
“All three claimants require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through the territorial sea. Under international law … the ships of all states – including their warships – enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is unlawful,” the US Navy statement said.
Asserting freedom of navigation rights involves sailing within the 12-mile territorial limit from a nation’s coastline recognized by international law.
But the Navy singled out China for making what it calls “straight baselines” enclosing all the waters within the island chain and said the Benfold was challenging those claims too.
“International law does not permit continental States, like the PRC (People’s Republic of China), to establish baselines around entire dispersed island groups,” the US statement said.
“With these baselines, the PRC has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law,” it said.
China reacted angrily to the presence of the Benfold in what it claims are its territorial waters.
“The PLA Southern Theater Command organized naval and air forces to track, monitor and drive away the destroyer with warnings,” a statement from the Chinese military said.
“What the US has done seriously infringes on China’s sovereignty and security, and is yet another hard evidence that it is pursuing maritime hegemony and militarizing the South China Sea. Facts fully prove that the US is a ‘risk-maker’ in the South China Sea and the ‘biggest destroyer’ of peace and stability in the South China Sea,” it said.
China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory.
Langford said Thursday’s FONOP was the second of this year against Chinese claims in the South China Sea – the USS Benfold also sailed near the Spratly Islands on Tuesday – but he stressed it continues a longstanding US military practice.
“US forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century,” the US Navy statement said.