China Sends Military to Intercept U.S. Navy in South China Sea As Tensions Rise

The Chinese military has moved to intercept U.S. warships sailing through the contested South China Sea in the latest of what has been a series of tense encounters involving the two powers in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. Navy deployed its Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell into the contested waters just 12 nautical miles from Paracel Islands, one of the numerous land formations claimed by China as well as other nations in the region. In a statement sent to Reuters, Pacific Fleet spokesperson Rachel McMarr said Monday the maneuver was part of a "freedom of navigation" operation intended "to challenge excessive maritime claims," though she claimed there was no specific target or political message.

The move was met with deep criticism in Beijing, which has vast claims spanning the South China Sea, including nearby Taiwan, a self-ruling island nation whose nationalist government split with the communist-run mainland after losing a civil war in 1949. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang confirmed during a press conference later that day that the U.S. sent a vessel into the area "without permission from the Chinese side."

"The Chinese side immediately sent military vessels and aircraft to conduct verification and identification on the U.S. ship and warned it to leave," Lu told the briefing. "We have lodged stern representations with the U.S. side."

Chinese frigate the Mianyang fires its guns during a sea assessment of the Southern Theater Command on December 5, 2018. The Chinese navy's Southern Theater Command is tasked with enforcing Beijing's claims to the vast South China Sea. Chinese People's Liberation Army

China's claims to the area overlap with those of Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam and include the entirety of the Spratly Islands—where the U.S. has accused China of installing military infrastructure—and the Scarborough Shoal. Both Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Paracel Islands, and the U.S. has contended that its ships passed through only international waters, which Chinese officials refuted.

"The relevant action by the U.S. vessel violated Chinese laws and relevant international laws, infringed upon China's sovereignty, and undermined peace, security and order of the relevant waters," Lu said. "The Chinese side firmly opposes the relevant action by the U.S. side and urges the U.S. to immediately stop such provocations. We will continue to take necessary measures to safeguard our national sovereignty and security."

Chinese Senior Colonel Li Huamin confirmed that China had deployed forces to the region in response to the McCampbell's passage and said the Southern Theater Command "will remain on high alert, closely monitor relevant maritime and air situations, and resolutely safeguard China's sovereignty and security."

The U.S.'s "freedom of navigation" challenge was based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by China but not the U.S. Concern over Beijing's control of the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest maritime traffic routes, has rattled officials in Washington and the Pentagon.

The USS McCampbell fires its Mark 45 5-inch gun during a live-fire training exercise in the waters south of Japan on May 17, 2017. China views U.S. "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea as a provocation and violation of Beijing's territorial claims. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeremy Graham/U.S. Navy/Department of Defense

Monday's events also came as China and the U.S. began talks in an attempt to settle a trade war that has cost both countries billions of dollars. President Donald Trump has accused China of pursuing dishonest economic practices, including currency manipulation and the forced sharing of intellectual property, among other accusations that the White House has labeled a threat to job security at home.

As the U.S. and China attempted to smooth over their financial dispute, Chinese President Xi Jinping has escalated on another front. The Chinese leader said Friday that Taiwan "must be, will be, reunified" with the mainland government. He offered the government in Taipei a limited autonomy package akin to that of Hong Kong and reserved "the option of taking all necessary means," including "the use of force."

But Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen refused the offer, saying it was "it is impossible for me—or in my view, any responsible politician in Taiwan—to accept President Xi Jinping's recent remarks without betraying the trust and will of the people of Taiwan."