The Chinese military has said it tracked a US warship that sailed through disputed waters in the South China Sea, accusing it of “provocative actions” and warning of “serious consequences”.
The US Navy said its mission was in accordance with international law and in line with its commitment to defend “every nation’s right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows”.
On Thursday afternoon a spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army’s southern theatre command said the USS Benfold, a guided-missile destroyer, “illegally entered China’s Xisha territorial waters without the approval of the Chinese government”.
The spokesperson, Col Tian Junli, said China’s navy and air forces were engaged to track and monitor the ship and give an “eviction” warning.
“We solemnly demand that the US side immediately stop such provocative actions, otherwise it will bear the serious consequences of unforeseen events,” a statement from theatre command said.
In a responding statement, the US Navy said China’s statement was “false”.
The Xisha Islands, also known as the Paracels, are disputed islands in the South China Sea. China, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim sovereignty, but China holds practical control.
China has established military infrastructure on the island chain, which “plays a key role in China’s goal of establishing surveillance and power projection capabilities throughout the South China Sea,” according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The South China Sea, which is crossed by vital shipping lanes and also contain gas fields and rich fishing grounds, is a significant flashpoint in tensions between China and its regional neighbours, and with the US.
The US frequently carries out what it calls “freedom of navigation” missions in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese territorial claims. It said the USS Benfold on Thursday asserted “navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law”.
“At the conclusion of the operation, USS Benfold exited the excessive claim and continued operations in the South China Sea,” it said, in apparent reference to China’s claim of a straight maritime boundary around the islands, which the US has accused China of declaring in an attempt to claim more waters and territory than it is entitled to under international law.
“The United States is defending every nation’s right to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did this week. Nothing PRC [People’s Republic of China] says otherwise will deter us,” it said.
“The PLA southern theatre’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful US maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its south-east Asian neighbours in the South China Sea.”
Bill Hayton, the author of South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, said the US mission was part of a pattern of freedom of navigation operations.
“The Americans aren’t doing anything that they haven’t done before, but of course China will call it provocative given everything else that is going on their relationship,” Hayton said. “Ironically, the more that China maintains these ‘baselines’, the more they attract American and even British warships to challenge them.”