US destroyer sails near disputed islands in SCS, raising tensions with China

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Published: 7/13/2022 7:48:16 AM

Tension spiked on Wednesday after China deployed warships and jets to monitor an American guided-missile destroyer, which sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea, challenging Chinese claims of territorial sovereignty in the maritime region.

The US destroyer USS Benfold sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands (known as Xisha in China) as part of Washington’s so-called “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea (SCS) in response to what it says are growing restrictions on “innocent passage” imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The US Navy’s 7th Fleet said the ship exercised its right to free passage and then continued sailing, contradicting a Chinese statement on the incident. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) southern theatre command said its forces had “monitored” and driven away the American warship for illegally entering Chinese waters in the South China Sea (SCS).

The US Navy in a statement said the USS Benfold “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law”.

The PLA reacted angrily to the ship’s passage, saying the US warship “illegally entered China’s Xisha territorial waters without the approval of the Chinese government”.

The statement said the command organised naval and air forces to track, monitor and drive away the warship.

“The actions of the US military have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously undermined the peace and stability of the SCS, and seriously violated international law and norms of international relations,” the statement said, adding that the incident showed the US as “an out-and-out creator of security risks in the SCS and destroyer of regional peace and stability”.

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations,” the US said on Wednesday in a statement attributed to Lieutenant Nicholas Lingo from the US Navy’s 7th Fleet.

“By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the US challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed by the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage is not to be subject to such restrictions,” it added.

The US regularly patrols the disputed maritime region, and, in June, Chinese official media called the USS Benfold a “habitual offender”.

The report in state-run tabloid Global Times cited various instances, including when the ship sailed past Paracel Islands in January, and transited through the Taiwan Strait last year.

The Chinese navy has been tracking USS Benfold since it entered the SCS last month through the Verde Island Passage in the Philippines.

China’s sweeping claims in the waters are disputed by several littoral countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Taiwan - which Beijing calls a breakaway region.
Hindustan Times

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