U.S. Says It Won't Be Deterred in South China Sea After Beijing's Protests

The U.S. Navy said it would continue lawful operations in the South China Sea after an American warship's passage through a disputed archipelago drew fresh protests from the Chinese military on Wednesday.

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold "asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law," the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in a press release for what was its first reported freedom of navigation operation—or FONOP—in the contested waters in nearly six months.

The People's Republic of China exercises de facto control over the Paracels, which it calls the Xisha Islands, and which are also nominally claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The Benfold was shadowed by Type 054A frigate Xianning of the People's Liberation Army Navy during the operation, according to images released by the PRC's Defense Ministry.

The American naval vessel "illegally trespassed into the territorial sea of China's Xisha without permission from the Chinese government," said a statement by Col. Tian Junli, the spokesperson for the PLA's Southern Theater Command. Naval and air forces "followed, surveilled, warned and expelled" the Benfold from the area, he said.

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Tian said the United States had "undermined peace and stability in the South China Sea and seriously violated international law and international relations customs." He described the FONOP as evidence of the U.S.'s "militarization of the South China Sea," a notion rejected by Seventh Fleet spokesperson Cdr. Hayley Sims in a written statement to Newsweek.

"The PRC's statement about this mission is false. USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters," Sims said. "The United States is defending every nation's right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing the PRC says otherwise will deter us."

She said the Chinese statement was "the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeastern Asian neighbors in the South China Sea."

"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," Sims said.

The Pentagon's Concern

Wednesday's operation was the U.S. Navy's third reported FONOP in the South China Sea this year—all involving the Benfold. The other two operations were in the Spratly Islands on January 18 and in the Paracel Islands on January 20. The destroyer also conducted two of the five reported FONOPs in the South China Sea in 2021.

Paracel claimants China, Taiwan and Vietnam all require permission or advance notification before foreign military vessels can conduct "innocent passage" through the 12 nautical mile territorial sea around the islands. China also claims a straight baseline that encloses the entire archipelago. Both, the U.S. argues, are inconsistent with the longstanding legal framework established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

"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 Seventh Fleet said.

"The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant," its statement concluded. "The operations demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows—regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events."

U.S., China Spar In South China Sea
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sails in the South China Sea on July 13, 2022. The Benfold conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands on July 13, drawing protests from the Chinese military. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Arthur Rosen/U.S. Navy

The Benfold's operation came a day after the sixth anniversary of the Philippines v. China ruling on July 12, 2016, when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of Manila and against Beijing's claim to almost all of the South China Sea.

China's claim to "historic rights" in the waters and to its many islands and features goes back to the founding of the PRC in 1949, when it inherited the claims of the mainland's prewar republican government. It fought the Battle of the Paracel Islands with South Vietnam to establish de facto control over the archipelago in 1974.

Since the turn of the century, and especially in the decade under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, Beijing has been able to back its rhetoric with actual and credible force, fortifying a number of natural and artificial islands in the South China Sea, and seizing control of disputed territory from other littoral states in the region, as was the case in 2012's Scarborough Shoal standoff with the Philippines.

U.S., China Spar In South China Sea
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sails in the South China Sea on July 13, 2022. Wednesday's operation was the U.S. Navy's third reported freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea this year—all involving the Benfold. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Arthur Rosen/U.S. Navy

During his address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. would be "candid about the challenges we all face" in the region, citing "an alarming increase in the number of unsafe aerial intercepts and confrontations at sea by PLA aircraft and vessels."

Cdr. Sims of the Seventh Fleet told Newsweek that the Benfold's interactions with foreign military forces were "consistent with international norms and did not impact the operation."