- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Navy recently conducted another warship passage near disputed islands in the South China Sea that China has claimed as its territory.

The littoral combat ship USS Montgomery sailed past the Spratly Islands, where China has deployed missiles, on Saturday to demonstrate the islands and surrounding waters are free and in international waters, the Navy said in a statement.

“This freedom of navigation operation — FONOP — upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea,” said Navy Lt. Joe Keiley, a spokesman for the 7th Fleet

The Montgomery “challenged the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan,” he said.

China’s military protested the operation and the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command said the U.S. warship was shadowed during the operation.

PLA Sr. Col. Li Huamin said the American combat ship “entered Chinese territorial waters without permission,” and was warned to leave.

PLA naval and air forces have been ordered to track and force ships out of the area, Col. Li said in a statement.

“The Chinese military is determined to safeguard national sovereignty and security as well as maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, no matter what tricks are played by U.S. ships,” he said.

In June 2018, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned China’s defense minister in Beijing that the island dispute was a potential flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.

Mr. Mattis bluntly told Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe that “we don’t want to end up like the Europeans who fought two world wars.”

Senior Pentagon officials were angered by Chinese actions three months earlier when advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles were detected on China’s newly-built up islands — in violation of an earlier pledge by Chinese Communist Party General Secret Xi Jinping not to militarize the islands.

Lt. Keiley said several nations in the region — China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines — all claim sovereignty over some or all of the Spratlys, a small group of islands located in the southeastern part of the sea.

China is one of three states that purport to require permission or advance notice before foreign military vessels can conduct so-called “innocent passage” through territorial seas.

“Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States — including warships — enjoy the right of innocent passage through territorial seas,” Lt. Kieley said.

“The unilateral imposition of any authorization or notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law, so the United States challenged these requirements.”

The latest operation by the Montgomery followed several earlier forays into the Spartlys by U.S. guided missile destroyers and cruisers.

The United States also has sailed aircraft carrier battle groups in the South China Sea.

China has claimed 90% of the sea under vague historical claims.

The United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled several years ago that the Chinese claim to the so-called Nine Dash Line, covering most of the sea, was illegal.

Beijing rejected the court’s ruling.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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