China Says U.S. Navy Intruded Into Waters Near South China Sea Islands

China accused the United States of violating its sovereignty after a U.S. Navy warship sailed past disputed South China Sea islands on Thursday, in waters Washington says Beijing has no right to claim.

Col. Tian Junli, a spokesperson for the People's Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, said Chinese forces "tracked, monitored and expelled" USS Benfold after the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer operated near the Paracel Islands "without the approval of the Chinese government."

"This action by the U.S. has seriously violated China's sovereignty and security," Tian's statement read. "We solemnly demand the U.S. immediately stop such provocative actions, or it will bear the serious consequences of any unforeseen event resulting from these incidents."

The Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet said USS Benfold asserted navigational rights "in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law." It was the year's first freedom-of-navigation operation, or FONOP, in the contested South China Sea. In 2021, the same vessel conducted two such missions, around the Paracels in July and the Spratlys in September.

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The U.S. takes no position on sovereignty over the hundreds of features in the energy-rich sea, where half a dozen nations assert often overlapping claims to various islands, reefs, banks and shoals. But it insists on the right to innocent passage as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is party.

Tian's statement described USS Benfold's FONOP as an illegal intrusion into the territorial sea of the Paracel Islands, which China calls Xisha. These terms and their definitions are at the heart of disagreements over Beijing's sweeping maritime claims, which are seen by the U.S. and others as inconsistent with international law.

"At the conclusion of the operation, USS Benfold exited the excessive claim and continued operations in the South China Sea," said the Seventh Fleet, which also disputed requirements by China, Taiwan and Vietnam to seek permission or provide "advance notification" before a foreign military vessel is allowed to traverse the waters.

U.S. Study Rejects China's Sweeping Maritime Claims
Illustrative map of the apparent geographic extents of the Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands, from which China claims its maritime zones. The map was released in a State Department report titled Limits in the Seas No. 150, on January 12, 2022, which found China’s sweeping claims to most of the South China Sea inconsistent with international law. Department of State

Last week, a 44-page study published by the State Department provided the most comprehensive rebuttal to China's maritime claims. Among those challenged was Beijing's creation of so-called "straight baselines," whereby it draws large blocks of exclusive waters around otherwise disparate geographical features. These large zones exist in four areas throughout the South China Sea.

Thursday's FONOP "upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging the PRC's claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands," the Seventh Fleet said.

"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," it continued.

In a direct response, the Seventh Fleet refuted Tian's comments: "The PRC's statement about this mission is false."

"The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle. 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 says otherwise will deter us," it said.

The Seventh Fleet conducted five FONOPs in 2021 and 10 the year before that.

China Protests U.S. Warship Near Disputed Islands
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold operates in the Pacific Ocean on September 5, 2015. China protested after the American warship conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” around the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on January 20, 2022. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan Burke/U.S. Navy