Asia Pacific

U.S. sends warship near South China Sea islets ahead of G20 summit

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. Navy has sent a warship near disputed islands in the South China Sea, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said Friday, ahead of key meeting between the leaders of China and the United States at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.

In a statement to The Japan Times, U.S. Pacific Fleet Deputy Spokesman Cmdr. Nate Christensen said that the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) near islands in the South China Sea’s Paracel chain on Monday.

The “USS Chancellorsville sailed near the Paracel islands to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” Christensen said, adding that the sailing had challenged China’s claims around the islets.

It was not clear which islets specifically the vessel had sailed near.

CNN, which also reported the FONOP, quoted an unidentified U.S. official as saying that the Chancellorsville was shadowed by a Chinese vessel during the operation but that all interactions were deemed safe and professional. It also reported that Beijing had issued a formal diplomatic protest, known as a demarche, following the operation.

In late September, the USS Decatur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands as part of a similar freedom of navigation operation.

During that operation, a Chinese destroyer came within 45 meters of the Decatur, forcing it to maneuver to avoid a collision. Washington called the Chinese destroyer’s actions unsafe and unprofessional, while Beijing said the U.S. was threatening the safety and sovereignty of China.

“U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including the South China Sea,” Christensen said. “All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.”

China has repeatedly said that it has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and its adjacent waters,” but Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines also have overlapping claims in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year and where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also routinely operate.

China has constructed a series of man-made islands in the waterway, some of which have been built up into garrisons with radar installations and military-grade runways. It has even deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems to some of the islets, according to the U.S.

Beijing says its facilities in the waters are for defensive purposes, but some observers say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea.

In July 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a landmark ruling that Beijing’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim to the South China Sea had no legal basis. China has rejected the international tribunal’s ruling.

Christensen said U.S. FONOPs would continue, adding that the operations “are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

Still, the U.S. appeared to be ramping up pressure on Beijing ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. The two are scheduled to meet over the weekend, with trade and China’s maritime assertiveness likely to top the agenda.

In addition to Monday’s FONOP, the U.S. also sent warships through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday — the third time the United States has sent vessels through the waterway this year.

The U.S. Navy said the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale and the USNS Pecos had conducted a “routine” transit of the strait “in accordance with international law.”

Beijing on Thursday said that it had expressed concerns to Washington over the move, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang calling Taiwan the “most important and sensitive issue” in relations between the powers.

“We have expressed our concerns to the U.S.,” Geng said, according to a transcript of a Thursday news conference.

“The Taiwan issue has a bearing on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. ties,” Geng said.

China regards self-ruled Taiwan as its own territory to be brought under its control, by force if necessary. In recent months, Beijing has raised eyebrows by heaping diplomatic and military pressure on Taipei.