Tensions escalated in the South China Sea after China called the presence of a US guided-missile destroyer in the contested Spratly Islands a violation of its national sovereignty.
The US navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement that the Chinese government’s accusation they trespassed without seeking permission was “false” and part of the country’s campaign to misrepresent lawful maritime navigation.
The USS Benfold took part in a 7th Fleet “Freedom of Navigation Operation” about 12 nautical miles off Mischief Reef on Wednesday, according to the navy.
“The PRC’s statement about this mission is false. USS Benfold conducted this [operation] in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters,” the statement said.
The operation came just days after China passed a law demanding foreign vessels submit notice before entering waters it claimed in the disputed island chain. The navy says it did not provide any such notice.
A spokesman for China’s People Liberation Army (PLA), senior colonel Tian Junli, said in the state-run newspaper Global Times that it “warned off” the USS Benfold after it “trespassed” into areas adjacent to the reef.
He said the PLA Southern Theater Command would stay on high alert to assert its sovereignty over the islands and surrounding waters, parts of which which are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
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Vice president Kamala Harris travelled to Vietnam in August to rally their support in combating China’s “bullying” in the South China Sea and pressure the country into following the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
As part of the navy operation, neither the USS Benfold nor the USS Carl Vinson and its strike group training elsewhere gave notice to any country claiming ownership to parts of the sea, 7th Fleet spokesman Lt Mark Langford told Stars and Stripes.
He told the outlet it was the navy’s seventh operation of its kind so far in 2021, with the previous action in the Spratly Islands in February.
China has turned reefs into islands by reclaiming land and building milady infrastructure throughout the Spratly Island chain, including on Mischief Reef.
The 7th Fleet said in its statement that the reef is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law as it has a low-tide elevation in its natural state and is submerged at high tide.
“The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law,” the statement said.
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