USS John S. McCain 'Expelled' From South China Sea, Claims Chinese Military

The Chinese military said it "expelled" the USS John S. McCain from the South China Sea after the U.S. Navy destroyer "trespassed" in the disputed waters of the Spratly Islands.

The Pentagon denied the People's Liberation Army's version of events, telling Newsweek that its freedom of navigation operation was done "in accordance with international law," and that interactions with the Chinese Navy "had no impact" on its mission.

China claims historic rights over almost all of the islands in the South China Sea and their surrounding waters. In 2016, it rejected a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling stating the opposite.

In a statement released Tuesday local time, Tian Junli, a spokesperson for the People's Liberation Army's Southern Theater Command, accused the U.S. Navy of entering the disputed waters "without Chinese government authorization."

Tian said the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer was "warned" and "expelled" from the area by China's navy and air force.

In an emailed statement, a Department of Defense official told Newsweek: "USS John S. McCain was not 'expelled' from any territory. The ship conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation in accordance with international law, and then continued to conduct normal operations.

"All interactions with foreign military forces were consistent with international norms, and those interactions had no impact on the operation. The United States will continue to sail, fly and operate wherever international law allows."

The USS John S. McCain, part of the Seventh Fleet, was shadowed by a Chinese warship as it sailed through the Spratly Islands, an unnamed U.S. official told Fox News.

The U.S. Navy warship sailed by Gaven Reef and Johnson South Reef, the official added. Both contested reefs are claimed by China and contain PLA military fortification.

The South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank tracking U.S. Navy and Air Force activity, reported the Chinese warship as a Type 054A frigate.

Suspected #USSJohnMcCain has been spotted before sailing into the #SpratlyIslands waters, with suspected #PLA Navy Type 054A following behind, Dec 22.

Image credit: @lobsterlarryliu via @planetlabs 👍👍@FoxNews also reported it. pic.twitter.com/a0HCXrqMPs

— SCS Probing Initiative (@SCS_PI) December 22, 2020

It was the ninth time in 2020 the U.S. Navy had conducted "freedom of navigation" operations near Chinese-controlled reefs, representing a five-year high, SCSPI said.

While China has accused the U.S. of trespassing and undermining security in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy claims it is exercising its navigational rights in accordance with international law.

Reefs in the Spratly Islands are claimed not only by China, but also Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, among others.

The USS John S. McCain conducted the freedom of navigation operation in order to challenge "restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan," the Seventh Fleet said in a statement on Tuesday.

USS John S. McCain South China Sea
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain transits through South China Sea on December 22, 2020. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda/U.S. Navy

It continued: "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 United States upholds freedom of navigation as a principle. As long as some countries continue to assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and that purport to restrict unlawfully the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all States, the United States will continue to defend those rights and freedoms. No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms."

The latest maritime dispute comes two days after China's domestic aircraft carrier Shandong alarmed observers by sailing to the South China Sea via the narrow Taiwan Strait.

Shandong had transited the strait—just 80 miles wide at its narrowest point—only once before, on December 26, 2019, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense said.

On Saturday, the Chinese Navy followed the USS Mustin as it made a similar transit through the Taiwan Strait.

Escalating military tensions have in the region have led to an increased risk of conflict in the South China Sea, SCSPI told Newsweek last week.

This story has been updated with a Pentagon statement.