China has flown warplanes near a disputed reef in the South China Sea to warn a US warship off the area, saying Beijing needs to strengthen its defense in the sea against Washington’s provocations.
China’s Defense Ministry said in statement on Tuesday that two fighter jets were scrambled earlier in the day to warn Guided missile destroyer the USS William P. Lawrence, which was travelling within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, one of several islands known internationally as Spratlys while referred to as Nansha Islands by China.
Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to the China-controlled reef. Beijing says Washington’s intensified presence in the region is a provocation, but the US officials say the sailings are part of a general policy to prevent restrictions on navigation rights in the South China Sea, especially for smaller nations.
The statement said the jets flew sorties above the US ship while three Chinese warships told it to leave. It said the illegal US patrol threatens pace and “again proves that China’s construction of defensive facilities on the relevant reefs in the Nansha Islands is completely reasonable and totally necessary.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry also reacted to the patrol, with spokesman Lu Kang calling it an illegal entry into Chinese waters.
“This action by the U.S. side threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability,” Lu told a daily news briefing.
US Defense Department spokesman, Bill Urban, said, however, that the navigation operation was undertaken to challenge excessive maritime claims in the area.
“These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise,” Urban said.
The US says it will continue the so-called freedom of navigation operations against China’s alleged large-scale land reclamations and construction on disputed features in the region, including a 3,000-meter (10,000-foot) runway which Washington says China will use it to press its extensive territorial claims at the expense of weaker rivals.
China has acted angrily to recent such operations, including the scramble of fighter planes near the disputed Scarborough Shoal last month and overflight last November of bombers near Chinese facilities under construction on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys.