China’s Defense Ministry has accused the U.S. of “serious political and military provocation” after the U.S. Navy conducted its first so-called freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the disputed South China Sea since January.
China said the USS Mustin, a guided-missile destroyer, entered the contentious waters Friday and was “warned off” by two Chinese ships. The Chinese Defense Ministry did not give a location for the operation, but media reports, citing unidentified U.S. officials, reported that the Mustin had sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and carried out maneuvering operations.
The Mustin is homeported at Yokosuka Naval Base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Mischief Reef, one of China’s man-made islands in the Spratlys, is home to a large airfield as well as other military-grade facilities.
Asked to comment on the operation, the U.S. military said its activities are carried out under international law and that American forces operate in the region — including the South China Sea — on a daily basis.
“We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” Schwegman added.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its man-made islands in the South China Sea, with some home to military-grade airfields and weapons. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and has conducted several FONOPs in the area.
Beijing has disputed this claim, saying the militarization of the outposts — over which it claims absolute sovereignty — has been for self-defense purposes.
Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea, and has built up a series of man-made outposts in what the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank has said is a bid to create “fully functioning air and naval bases.”
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.
The Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang warned that continued U.S. patrols in the waterway “harm military relations between the two countries, causing close encounters between the countries’ air forces and navies, which could lead to misjudgment and even accidents.”
“We ask the U.S. to respect the sovereignty and security of China, respect the will of countries in the region, who want peace, stability and tranquility, and not to make trouble out of nothing,” he said, adding that further “provocation would only drive the Chinese military to continue to improve its defense capabilities.”
In a separate statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China has always respected and safeguarded freedoms of navigation and overflight under international law in the South China Sea.
It said that the situation in the waterway had stabilized thanks to the efforts of China and Southeast Asia countries, but warned that the U.S. insistence “on provoking incidents” and “creating tensions” in the South China Sea “runs counter to the desire of regional countries to seek stability, while promoting cooperation and development.”
Separately Friday, China’s Navy said it would carry out “combat exercises” in the South China Sea in the coming days.
It said the drills are “a routine part of the navy’s annual training plan” intended to boost troops’ training and hone their combat capabilities. The exercises, the navy said, are “not aimed at any specific country or target.”
The announcement came after Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that it had dispatched jets and ships to shadow a Chinese aircraft carrier group that sailed through the Taiwan Strait in a southwesterly direction, apparently into the South China Sea.
China’s state-run China Daily newspaper, quoting a researcher close to the country’s navy, reported that the carrier group led by the Liaoning, the country’s sole operating carrier, will take part in the coming exercises in the South China Sea.
The exercises would be the first such operations by the navy in the South China Sea this year, the paper said.