U.S. Navy Destroyer Challenges Beijing's South China Sea Claim in Latest Op

A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed into the contested waters of the South China Sea on Wednesday, challenging "unlawful and sweeping maritime claims" by Beijing and other governments in the region.

Guided-missile destroyer USS Russell conducted the Navy's second freedom of navigation operation in the area since President Joe Biden took office last month.

The warship "asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law," said a statement by the U.S. 7th Fleet.

The operation "upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan."

The statement continued: "Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the sea. The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant."

Beijing lays claim to all the Spratly Islands, an archipelago whose partial claimants also include Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

U.S. allies in the region, including the Philippines and Japan, have expressed concern over China's new coast guard law. The legislation, adopted last month, permits Chinese maritime police to take "all necessary measures" to stop foreign vessels operating in its territorial waters, including the use of force.

Beijing denies that it intends to fire on vessels deemed to be intruding in Chinese waters, despite its ramping up of coast guard activities around the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan, in the East China Sea.

Wednesday's mission followed USS John S. McCain's closely watched transit of the Taiwan Strait in early February. The guided missile destroyer conducted its own freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea shortly after.

Navy Destroyer Operates in South China Sea
Guided-missile destroyer USS Russell conducts a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea on February 17. Wade Costin/U.S. Navy

Last week, the aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz conducted rare dual-carrier training drills in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Navy is letting Beijing know it is right there. It is watching. It won't be intimidated and will not leave.
Ian Easton, Project 2049 Institute

Analysts said the operations showed the Biden administration's determination to continue the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy formalized under the presidency of Donald Trump, whose final year in the White House was marked by a notable increase in security cooperation between Washington and Taipei.

"The Taiwan Strait is the most structurally unstable flashpoint in the world. It's a ticking time bomb," Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia, told Newsweek.

He added: "Making matters worse, the Chinese Communist Party has continued to reject Taipei's calls to establish open diplomatic communication channels, and the PLA has conducted some very threatening military activities in the area."

Easton, who is the author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia, said PLA coercion remained a "hallmark" of Beijing's approach to the region.

"The U.S. Navy is now on the frontline, doing what it can to support Taiwan's defense and deter a potential Chinese miscalculation that could result in a dangerous crisis or conflict," Easton noted.

"The U.S. Navy is letting Beijing know it is right there. It is watching. It won't be intimidated and will not leave. This is an important signal, a form of deterrence," he said.

American forces operate in the South China Sea "on a daily basis" and do so "in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners," the 7th Fleet said.

"The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations. The international community has an enduring role in preserving the freedom of the seas, which is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity," said its statement.

"All of our operations are designed to be conducted professionally and in accordance with international law and 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," it added.

This story has been updated with additional analysis by Project 2049 Institute senior director Ian Easton.