The U.S. Navy sent a destroyer through the disputed South China Sea, the latest in a series of maritime challenges to China‘s territorial claims in the region.
On Thursday, the USS Benfold conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” close by the disputed Paracel Islands. Officials with the U.S. 7th Fleet called the maneuvers “consistent with international law.”
“This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage,” U.S. Navy officials said in a statement after the destroyer passed through the island chain.
Taiwan and Vietnam also claim sovereignty over the Paracels — which the U.S. government doesn’t recognize as their legal right — but China is actively expanding its military presence in the South China Sea.
China‘s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) claimed that its naval and air forces warned off the USS Benfold, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, after it entered the chain — known in China as the Xisha Islands. U.S. officials denied their warship had been diverted.
“We sternly demand the US to stop such provocation immediately, or it will face the serious consequences led by accidents caused by this,” Senior Col. Tian Junli, spokesperson at the PLA Southern Theater Command, said in a statement.
China‘s statement “is 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,” U.S. 7th Fleet officials said in a statement. “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 U.S. also pushed back against China‘s claims of a straight baseline boundary around the Paracel Island chain.
“With these baselines, the PRC has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law,” the U.S. 7th Fleet said.
The U.S. Navy operates in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as it has done for more than a century.
“The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows — regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events,” 7th Fleet officials said.