Navy Sends Second Ship Into Disputed Waters After China Claims It Scrambled Jets to Expel U.S. Destroyer

The U.S. Navy sailed a second ship through the South China Seas this week, further challenging Beijing's claim to the disputed waters after the People's Liberation Army (PLA) claimed that it expelled the first ship amid escalating tensions over the disputed region and the global pandemic.

The USS Barry carried out the "freedom of navigation operation" on Tuesday, the Navy said in a statement to Newsweek. Their mission was to maintain the "rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law."

"Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose an unprecedented threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight and the right of innocent passage of all ships," the Navy said.

After the incident, the PLA's Southern Theatre Command, which oversees the disputed region, released a statement on Chinese social media claiming that their forces responded by forcing the USS Barry out of the island chain. The PLA said that ships and aircrafts were sent to "track, monitor, verify, identify and expel" the American warship from Paracel Island.

The Chinese military also accused the U.S. of seriously violating "international law and China's sovereignty and security interests" by engaging in "provocative acts." The U.S. Navy's action was "incompatible with the current joint efforts of the international community to fight against the COVID-19," the PLA said in a statement shared to the military's Chinese social media, according to the South China Morning Post.

"These provocative acts by the U.S. side ... seriously violated China's sovereignty and security interests, deliberately increased regional security risks and could easily trigger an unexpected incident."

While the PLA said they expelled Barry, a Navy spokesperson denied the claim, telling Newsweek on Wednesday that "all interactions that occurred were in accordance with maritime norms."

Earlier on Wednesday, the U.S. Navy carried out a second "freedom of navigation operation" in the Spratly Islands with the USS Bunker Hill. In a statement to Newsweek, a Navy spokesperson said both operations this week were "consistent with international law."

"This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan," the spokesperson added.

USS Barry
In this handout released by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) is underway in Mediterranean Sea on May 14, 2011 at sea. U.S. Navy/Getty

The move came one week after Beijing tightened its grip on the disputed area by ordering an administrative reorganization of the area's territories. Chinese authorities introduced two new municipal districts, slicing control of the Paracel and Spratly island groups, which was originally managed by Sansha, in China's Hainan province.

In another move that strengthened their territorial control, Beijing authorities announced official Chinese names for 80 islands and other regions in the South China Sea.

Washington disputes much of Beijing's claim to the disputed sea, including Paracel island, a region that Vietnam and Taiwan also claims.

The two nations have traded jabs in recent weeks over their respective handling of the global coronavirus pandemic, with each attempting to shift blame onto the other. American has repeatedly lashed out at China, where the virus was first identified in late December before it then spread around the world, for allegedly hiding information about the origin of the disease.

U.S. Secretary of State ramped up the accusations during an appearance on Fox News on Wednesday morning. "The Chinese Communist Party now has a responsibility to tell the world how this pandemic got out of China and all across the world, causing such global economic devastation," Pompeo said. "America needs to hold them accountable."

President Donald Trump has also criticized the World Health Organization for allegedly taking China's information about the virus at "face value." "They misled us," Trump said during a recent White House meeting with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. "They're literally a pipe organ for China."

Beijing defended its handling of the coronavirus and has accused the U.S. leaders of telling "barefaced lies."

"American politicians have repeatedly ignored the truth and have been telling barefaced lies," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a press conference on Tuesday. "They have only one objective: shirk their responsibility for their own poor epidemic prevention and control measures, and divert public attention."

Newsweek reached out to China's embassy in Washington D.C. for comment. This story will be updated with any comment.