The already tense US-Chinese relations saw a further escalation on Wednesday when a US destroyer sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Wednesday, provoking an angry reaction from Beijing, which said its military had “driven away” the vessel.
The presence of the USS Benfold in the South China Sea is nothing new as the US has been regularly carrying out Freedom of Navigation Operations challenging what it says are restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China and other claimants.
The ship “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law,” the US Navy 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.”
On July 13 (local time) USS Benfold (DDG 65) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law. Read more: https://t.co/VbHoAZYhTc pic.twitter.com/7fL1MSQB50
— 7th Fleet (@US7thFleet) July 13, 2022
China refutes claims of infringing upon freedom of navigation or overflight, retorting at the US with accusations of deliberately provoking tensions.
“On July 13, the US guided-missile destroyer ‘Benfold’ illegally broke into China’s Paracel territorial waters without the approval of the Chinese government,” said the Chinese military’s Southern Theater spokesperson Tian Junli, adding that the move “seriously damaged the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and the norms of international relations.”
The People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theatre Command, one out of five theatre commands of the Chinese army, said the US ship’s actions seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security by illegally entering China’s territorial waters around the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
“The PLA’s Southern Theatre Command organised sea and air forces to follow, monitor, warn and drive away” the ship, it added, showing pictures of the Benfold taken from the deck of the Chinese frigate the Xianning. “The facts once again show that the United States is nothing short of a ‘security risk maker in the South China Sea’ and a ‘destroyer of regional peace and stability.”
US Navy destroyer USS Benfold (DDG-65) conducted freedom of navigation operations in Paracel Islands on July 13. China PLA Southern Theater Command released the image of the encounter for the first time. pic.twitter.com/ssA8tJqYxF
— Ryan Chan 陳家翹 (@ryankakiuchan) July 13, 2022
Ever since China seized control of the Paracel Islands from the then-South Vietnamese government in 1974, its claims to the South China Sea have been contested by the international community. China has been disregarding an international tribunal’s ruling made six years ago invalidating China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea, a conduit for about USD 3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade each year.
But there are more contenders to the South China Sea, namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, all of which have competing and often overlapping claims.
China has dotted some of its South China Sea holdings with artificial islands including airports, which, in turn, raised regional concerns about Beijing’s intentions.