The U.S. Navy sailed a warship near a Chinese-controlled island in the disputed South China Sea on Wednesday for the first time since Beijing began implementing a law requiring foreign vessels to give notice before entering waters it claims.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold “engaged in ‘normal operations’ within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef” in the Spratly chain of the strategic waterway, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement.
The “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) near the islet, which is also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, was the fourth known operation conducted by the U.S. under the administration of President Joe Biden.
China’s military lambasted the latest operation as the latest proof of the United States’ “militarization of the South China Sea,” adding that it had tracked the vessel and warned it off.
“More and more facts have proved that the U.S. is the biggest risk and peace breaker for the stability and peace in the region,” said Senior Col. Tian Junli, a spokesman for the Southern Theater Command.
Later, in a separate statement, the 7th Fleet called China’s characterization of the mission as “false.”
The Chinese “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,” it said, using the acronym for China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.
China’s behavior, it added, “stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
Beijing claims some 90% of the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade flow every year, despite overlapping claims by others in the region, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei. It has conducted a massive land-reclamation project to essentially build and militarize a number of islands in the waters despite protests from other claimants and the United States and Japan.
Washington and Tokyo fear the Chinese-held outposts, some of which boast military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry, could be used to restrict free movement in an area that includes vital sea lanes.
China on Sept. 1 implemented a revised law that enables its maritime safety agency, which belongs to the transportation ministry, to order foreign vessels to leave what the nation claims as its territorial waters if it judges their presence to be a security threat.
In February, China enforced another controversial law that allows its coast guard to use weapons when foreign ships involved in illegal activities in Chinese-claimed waters do not obey orders.
In another signal that the U.S. was flouting the new Chinese law, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its strike group were also in the South China Sea for training, including maritime strike exercises.
Mischief Reef — the largest of Beijing’s reclaimed and fortified islets in the South China Sea — is home to a 2,700-meter, military-grade airfield and hosts anti-aircraft weapons and a CIWS missile-defense system.
But the 7th Fleet said that, under international law, features like Mischief Reef that are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea.
“The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law,” it said.
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