China warned on Friday that US freedom of navigation patrols in disputed areas of the South China Sea would trigger militarisation in the region and could spark an unplanned clash.
The warning came after the destroyer the USS John S McCain carried out the US military’s latest patrol, close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands
The Chinese defence ministry said in a statement that the move was provocative, would severely damage the two nations’ strategic trust and created difficulties and obstacles for their militaries.
“We urge the US to immediately correct its mistake, stop provocations in the name of ‘freedom of navigation’,” it said.
China resolutely opposed the US “show of force”, it added.
China’s foreign ministry also criticised the latest US Navy freedom of navigation patrol as disrupting hard-earned regional peace.
“The US Navy violated Chinese and international laws and breached Chinese sovereignty and endangered life and the security of frontline personnel,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement on Thursday.
“Some external forces wish to go against the tide and provoke troubles in the name of ‘freedom of navigation’, aiming to destroy the good atmosphere. This clearly shows who doesn’t want a stable South China Sea and who is the major force driving the militarisation in these waters,” Geng said.
The patrol was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in international waters.
It also comes as US President Donald Trump is seeking China’s cooperation to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
Mischief Reef is one of the islands where China is building military facilities.
A large antennae array is being installed that may boost the Chinese military’s ability to monitor the area, according to a report released in June by part of the US think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion worth of global trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
These territorial disputes continue to strain relations between China and its neighbours in the region. At a recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum in Manila, Vietnam pushed for a joint communique to express concern about “extended construction” in the disputed waters.
Beijing-based military expert Li Jie expected the US would conduct more freedom of navigation operations to counterbalance the impact of China’s military build-up, and as an attempt to maintain Washington’s ties in the region.
“This incident won’t damage Sino-US relations to a great extent, but it will affect the atmosphere when it comes to negotiating, for example over trade matters,” Li said.
Another military expert based in Beijing, Zhou Chenming, said China’s neighbours expected the US to do more to counter its territorial claims in the South China Sea. “The US wants to show support to those countries by patrolling near an island that China claims to have sovereignty over,” Zhou said.