The US Navy sailed a warship near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea Friday as part of an operation aimed at challenging Chinese claims to the area, a move that drew an immediate protest from Beijing which accused the US of practicing “navigational hegemony.”
The guided-missile destroyer “USS Wayne E. Meyer challenged the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and also contested China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” Cdr. Reann Mommsen, a spokesperson for the US Navy’s 7th fleet said in a statement.
“China, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. All three claimants require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through territorial seas,” Mommsen said, adding “the unilateral imposition of any authorization or notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law, so the United States challenged these requirements.”
Mommsen added that “the United States also again challenged China’s 1996 declaration of straight baselines encompassing the Paracel Islands,” referring to China’s claim to the islands and the nearby waters saying that “with these baselines, China has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled under international law.
The Chinese Defense Ministry posted a statement online in response to the operation saying the US warship “trespassed into waters off China’s Xisha Islands without permission of the Chinese government.”
“The US side has been practicing ‘navigational hegemony’ in the South China Sea for a long time. Such actions have seriously undermined China’s sovereign interests, and proven the US side’s complete lack of sincerity in maintaining global peace as well as regional security and stability,” China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command spokesman Li Huamin said in the statement.
The USS Wayne E. Meyer conducted a similar operation last month, sailing within 12 nautical miles of the contested Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef, two Chinese occupied islands in the South China Sea.
The US regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, with many of those aimed at challenging what the US sees as China’s excessive maritime claims in the region.
The US has long accused Beijing of militarizing islands in the South China Sea via the deployment of military hardware and construction of military facilities.
Friday’s naval operation and exchange of words comes as Washington and Beijing are attempting to negotiate an ongoing trade dispute that has roiled international markets.
Tensions between the US and China have also risen in recent weeks as officials in Beijing have accused the US of supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, something the US and the protesters themselves have strongly denied.