China Enraged as U.S. Navy Asserts Navigational Rights Near Paracel Islands

The Chinese military authorities said a United States Navy warship entered the waters of the China-controlled Paracel Islands "without permission" on Thursday, calling the operation "unprofessional and irresponsible."

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea in order to challenge China's baseline claim over the entirety of the archipelago it calls Xisha, a statement by the U.S. Seventh Fleet said.

Tian Junli, a spokesperson for the People's Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, accused the U.S. military vessel of "illegal entry" into the territorial waters of the Paracels. The islands are under de facto administration by China, but are also subject to sovereignty claims by Taiwan and Vietnam.

Tian said PLA forces were mobilized to "track, warn and expel" the American warship from the islands, which he said were "part of China's inherent territory."

The FONOP "violated China's sovereignty and security" and "undermined peace and stability in the region," the spokesperson said.

Tian's statement described the U.S. Navy operation—the third South China Sea FONOP to be announced under the Biden administration—as a violation of "international law and basic principles in international relations."

He said it increased the risk of "misunderstanding, misjudgement and maritime accidents," calling it "unprofessional and irresponsible" while describing the U.S. as a "risk generator."

USS Curtis Wilbur's assertion of "navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands" was "consistent with international law," said the Seventh's Fleet's statement, which cited the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The U.S. has observed UNCLOS as international law since 1994, although successive Senates have yet to ratify it. The People's Republic of China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, but it rejected a 2016 Hague ruling under the convention which failed to recognize its sweeping claims to nearly all of the South China Sea as part of Beijing's "nine-dash line."

Thursday's FONOP "upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and also by challenging China's claim to strait baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands," the statement continued.

It added: "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."

Reached by Newsweek on Thursday, a U.S. Navy official referred to an updated notice reading: "The PLA's statement about this mission is false. USS Curtis Wilbur was not 'expelled' from any nation's territory.

"USS Curtis Wilbur conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters. The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle. The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Curtis Wilbur did here.

"The PLA's statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and asserts its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense in [sic] the Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea. The PRC's behavior stands in contrast to the United States' adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms."

U.S. military FONOPs have been a matter of public record for three decades. Their consistency has occasionally led to criticism when challenging the maritime claims of U.S. allies, as was the case in April when USS John Paul Jones operated in India's exclusive economic zone.

The Pentagon released a detailed list of last year's FONOPs in March.

Thursday's FONOP in the South China Sea followed USS Curtis Wilbur's transit of the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday. The operation also drew opposition from Beijing.

The Biden administration's only other FONOPs in the region so far were conducted by USS John S. McCain and USS Russell, both in February.

U.S. Navy Destroyer In Philippine Sea
The guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sails at sea during a close quarters maneuvering exercise in the Philippine Sea on February 28, 2018. Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Benjamin Dobbs/U.S. Navy