A US Navy warship has allegedly conducted a “navigation freedom operation” near an island claimed by China in the South China Sea, in a move that could heighten tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The US Defense Department made the announcement on Friday, saying the USS Decatur destroyer passed close to the Paracel Islands and “conducted this transit in a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident.”
Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross added, “This operation demonstrated that coastal States may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law.”
The maneuver marks the third such operation the US has conducted this year near the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals, over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest also confirmed the patrol in the disputed waters.
“I can confirm that last night, the USS Decatur conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, specifically in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands. The purpose of this mission was to uphold the rights and freedoms of all states under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”
Earnest further added that the operation served as a message to coastal states that they “may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law.”
Regional countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, all have overlapping claims with China over disputed territories in the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, Pratas Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
China denounces move as ‘provocative’
The announcement swiftly prompted China’s Defense Ministry to issue a statement, saying, the US warship patrol in the contested waters and near the islands was “illegal” and “provocative”, adding that the patrol had seriously damaged mutual trust between the two countries.
“This is serious illegal behavior, and is intentionally provocative behavior. China’s Defense Ministry is resolutely opposed to this and has lodged serious representations with the US side,” the statement said.
“We strongly urge the US side to respect China’s national sovereignty and security interests, and not keep repeating the same mistakes. The Chinese military will increase its air and maritime patrol efforts in accordance with need, strengthen defense ability building in all areas, and resolutely defend national sovereignty and security,” it added.
China’s Defense Ministry said conducting such operations by the US would exacerbate the situation in the disputed waters, noting that, “This shows it is the United States which is the troublemaker when it comes to the stability of the South China Sea.”
China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody war over the Paracel Islands in 1974 and some of the disputes have been taken to the United Nations.
The US has time and again risked heightening tensions with China through military presence in the South China Sea, questioning Beijing’s insistence on sovereignty over the disputed waters.
China has, in response, accused Washington of meddling in the regional issues and deliberately escalating the situation in the waters.