U.S.-Chinese tensions heightened Monday as the Biden administration, amid Chinese claims that its military had driven an American destroyer from the South China Sea, restated that any attack on the Philippines in the disputed sea would trigger a defense treaty.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold carried out the Navy’s latest freedom of navigation operation near the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the sea under international law and did not respond to Chinese military demands to leave the area, 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Mark Langford said in a statement.
China‘s claim that the destroyer was forced out of the disputed waterway is “false,” he said.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized China for bullying regional states with illegal claims to owning most of the South China Sea.
“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway,” Mr. Blinken said while marking the fifth anniversary of an international tribunal ruling against China’s expansive maritime claims to the sea.
Mr. Blinken affirmed the Trump administration’s policy announced a year ago that any attack on the Philippine armed forces in the sea would trigger the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty.
Senior Col. Tian Junli, a spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army’s southern theater command, said in a statement Monday that the U.S. Navy ship “trespassed” Chinese territorial waters “without [the] Chinese government’s permission.”
“The U.S. action seriously goes against the international law and basic norms governing international relations, which is yet another ironclad proof that the United States has been pursuing navigation hegemony and creating militarization of the South China Sea,” Col. Tian said of the activities near what Beijing calls the Xisha Islands.
“Facts have proved that the U.S. is in every sense a security risk maker in the South China Sea,” he said.
In response, Lt. Langford said: “The PRC’s statement about this mission is false. USS Benfold conducted this [freedom of navigation operation] in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters.”
Lt. Langford said China’s statements are “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”
“The PRC’s behavior stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the Navy said in a statement.
“All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms,” the statement said.
The warship passed near islands close to the major Chinese naval base on Hainan Island, where nuclear missile submarines are based in underwater caves.
The Navy has been increasing warship operations in the sea, with monthly passages near disputed islands in the Parcels and farther south near the Spratly Islands.
China, Vietnam and Taiwan claim hundreds of disputed islands and reefs in the Parcels. China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim the Spratlys, and the Philippines and Malaysia claim portions of the islands.
Since 2014, China has been seeking to exert control over the entire South China Sea. Beijing claims the sea is historically Chinese maritime territory.
China began deploying anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on some of the islands in 2018 in contravention of a pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize the islands.
As the U.S. and Chinese militaries escalate their war of words over the island passages, the Pentagon is voicing concern about the threat of aggressive Chinese military action in the region.
Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, director of intelligence for the Indo-Pacific Command, said last week that the danger of Chinese action against neighboring states, including Taiwan, had increased.
“What are we warning about: It’s danger on all fronts,” Adm. Studeman said. “This idea that it’s only a Taiwan scenario versus many other areas where the Chinese are being highly assertive, coercive, is a failure in understanding complexity because it’s not that simple.”
Mr. Blinken said in the statement that the 2016 ruling by the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration was a “unanimous and enduring decision” rejecting China’s claims of having a basis in international law.
“Freedom of the seas is an enduring interest of all nations and is vital to global peace and prosperity,” he said. “Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea.”
The court ruling five years ago stated that China has “no lawful claim to the area determined by the Arbitral Tribunal to be part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” Mr. Blinken said.
“The PRC and the Philippines, pursuant to their treaty obligations under the Law of the Sea Convention, are legally bound to comply with this decision,” Mr. Blinken said.
The Biden administration is continuing the policy announced in July 2020 by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that China has “no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region,” he added.
“We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” Mr. Blinken said.
The reference to Article IV goes beyond the Trump administration declaration in 2020. That article of the treaty states an armed attack on military or civilian vessels or aircraft, or metropolitan territory will result in a joint response.
Mr. Blinken called on China to abide by international law, “cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small.”
In a lengthy rebuttal, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Mr. Blinken’s statement “violates and distorts international law.”
“This is extremely irresponsible. China is strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to the wrong act by the U.S. side,” he said.
The spokesman repeated Chinese government objections to the 2016 court ruling and said U.S. warship visits to the South China Sea are illegal intrusions.
Since the beginning of the year, he said, U.S. warships and aircraft have conducted nearly 2,000 reconnaissance operations and carried out over 20 large-scale military exercises.
The U.S. military also is abusing bilateral military agreements that “smack of the Cold War” to threaten the use of force on China, Mr. Zhao said.
“It is self-evident who is seeking coercion and intimidation and threatening freedom and security of navigation,” said Mr. Zhao, who is one of China’s most aggressive propagandists and who has promoted the narrative that the U.S. military caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. government spokesmen have rejected the Chinese claims.
Col. Tian said Chinese forces monitored the Benfold and warned it to leave the area.
He warned the United States to halt “provocations” in the sea. “Otherwise, all consequences arising therefrom will be borne by the U.S. side,” he said.
Lt. Langford said the latest warship passage “reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle.”
“The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing PRC says otherwise will deter us,” he said.
“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations,” Lt. Langford said.
China’s requirement that all military vessels first obtain permission or provide advance notification is not required under international law, he said.
“By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam,” Lt. Langford said. “The United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions.”
The latest warship operation also challenged China’s 1996 declaration of “straight baselines” delineating territory around the Parcels.
Such baselines are not permitted under the Law of the Sea Convention.
“With these baselines, China has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law,” Lt. Langford said.
“By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea, and that China’s claimed straight baselines around the Paracel Islands are inconsistent with international law.