US Navy destroyer performs freedom of navigation exercise in South China Sea

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Lt. Nicholas Lingo, a spokesperson for the US Navy’s 7th Fleet headquartered in Japan, said it was the second so-called freedom of navigation operation in the Paracel Islands — known as the Xisha Islands in China — so far this year, and the third targeting Beijing’s “excessive maritime claims” in regional waters during the same period.

Wednesday’s operation by the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold challenged not only China but Vietnam and the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which also claim the islands, as all three governments require military vessels to seek permission or give advance notice of “innocent passage” through the area, Lingo said.

The Paracels are a collection of 130 small coral islands and reefs in the northwestern part of the South China Sea. They have no indigenous population to speak of, only Chinese military garrisons amounting to 1,400 people, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The islands have been in Chinese hands for nearly 50 years and during that time they’ve been populated with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military installations.

The PLA’s Southern Theater Command said it warned the US destroyer to leave its “territorial waters.”

“The actions of the US military have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously undermined the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and norms of international relations,” PLA Air Force Col. Tian Junli, spokesman for the Southern Theater Command, said in a statement.

But Lingo, the US 7th Fleet spokesperson, said the sailing of the US destroyer “upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law.”

“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 statement said.

“Under international law … the ships of all states — including their warships — enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is unlawful,” the US Navy statement said.

Asserting freedom of navigation rights involves sailing within the 12-mile territorial limit from a nation’s coastline recognized by international law.

The US Navy statement said Wednesday’s operation also challenged “straight baselines” — moves to define all the waters within the island chain as a single territorial claim.

“International law does not permit continental States, like the PRC, to establish baselines around entire dispersed island groups. With these baselines, the PRC has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law,” the 7th Fleet statement said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

The PLA said Wednesday the US Navy was increasing tensions in the region.

“Facts once again show that the United States is an out-and-out ‘South China Sea Risk Maker’ and ‘Disruptors of Regional Peace and Stability,'” the PLA statement said.

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