South China Sea: Accusations traded after Beijing 'warns away' US destroyer from disputed waters

Tensions over the disputed South China Sea have been reignited after Beijing said its military had driven away a US warship that had entered its territorial waters without permission.

Washington has insisted the naval destroyer USS Hopper was on a routine freedom of navigation patrol.

According to a post on the official WeChat social media account of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, the military deployed naval and air forces to "track, monitor and warn away" the American vessel.

But in response, the US Navy said the ship had "asserted navigational rights in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law".

Beijing lays claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, which provides a route to more than £2.4trn of seaborne trade a year, including parts over which the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei assert rights.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said China's wide-reaching claim had no legal basis.

The Philippines and Australia began their first joint sea and air patrols in the sea on Saturday, days after Beijing accused Manila of enlisting foreign forces to patrol the South China Sea - a reference to joint operations with the US military.

Two Chinese fighter jets were monitored "orbiting" a Philippine aircraft participating in the patrols but did not cause a problem, Manila said.

Philippine military chief Romeo Brawner said the nation was well within its rights to conduct joint patrols with allies to promote the "rule-based international order".

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Australian deputy prime minister Richard Marles said: "Australia and the Philippines are firmly committed to a peaceful, secure and prosperous region, where sovereignty and agreed rules and norms are respected.

"The first joint patrol between the Australian defence force and the armed forces of the Philippines demonstrates this

China said the incident involving the USS Hopper "proves that the United States is an out-and-out 'security risk creator' in the South China Sea".

Lieutenant Kristina Weidemann of the US Navy said in a statement: "The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant.

"Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas."

Earlier this month, the US and China held "candid" talks on maritime issues, including the contested South China Sea, where Washington underlined its concerns about what it called "dangerous and unlawful" Chinese actions.