Asia Pacific

Beijing military vows to stay 'on high alert' after U.S. warships sail near man-made islets in South China Sea

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

A Chinese military spokesman has said the People’s Liberation Army will remain “on high alert and take all necessary measures” to protect what it claims is its “national sovereignty” after the U.S. Navy sent two warships near two Chinese-held man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea.

Senior Col. Li Huamin, a spokesperson for the PLA’s Southern Theater Command, said the military had sent warships and aircraft to warn off the guided-missile destroyers USS Preble and USS Chung Hoon after the two vessels conducted what the U.S. calls “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOP) Monday near two islets in the South China Sea’s Spratly island chain.

China’s Foreign Ministry also confirmed the operation, saying that the sailings had “violated China’s sovereignty and undermined peace, security and healthy order in the relevant sea areas.”

The U.S. military confirmed the FONOP, offering up rare details of the operation.

“Preble and Chung Hoon sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson Reefs in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, said in a statement.

“U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” he added. “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.”

Doss said that the FONOPs were “routine and regular” and “are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

Washington and Beijing have frequently jousted over the militarization of the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have competing claims.

China has constructed man-made islands, some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry, in the strategic waterway. The U.S. fears those 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 regularly conducts FONOPs in the area.

The back-and-forth between the two powers came as the U.S. said China had backtracked on substantial commitments it made during trade talks with the United States, prompting President Donald Trump to impose additional tariffs on Chinese goods slated to go into effect Friday.

That move abruptly ended a five-month truce in a trade war that has cost the two countries billions of dollars and slowed global growth.

It also came just days after the Pentagon released its latest report on China’s military power.

That report said that last year, “China continued militarization in the South China Sea by placing anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on outposts in the Spratly Islands, violating a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping that ‘China does not intend to pursue militarization’ of the Spratly Islands.”