The U.S. Navy on Thursday sailed a guided missile destroyer close to the Paracel Islands, its latest freedom of navigation operation in the disputed South China Sea, drawing a furious reaction from Beijing.
The USS Mustin passed within 12 nautical miles of Woody Island and Pyramid Rock, which are both occupied by China, according to an unnamed U.S. Navy official cited by CNN.
The operation took place at an extremely delicate time in U.S.-China relations after Washington declared that Hong Kong no longer qualifies for special status under U.S. law, after Beijing moved to impose national security legislation on China’s freest city.
It was also the second freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, the U.S. has conducted near the Paracels in a month, and follows weeks of elevated tensions in the South China Sea as Beijing has moved to assert its sweeping territorial claims, drawing U.S. criticism and diplomatic protests from other claimants in Southeast Asia.
Lt. Anthony Junco, a spokesperson for the 7th Fleet, said in a statement that the USS Mustin “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law,” CNN reported. “”By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea.”
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, which is responsible for China’s military conduct in the South China Sea, called the U.S. operation a “naked act of hegemony” and claimed to have sent aircraft and warships to monitor the USS Mustin’s passage.
The statement said the Mustin passed through the “territorial waters” of China’s claimed features in the Paracels. Territorial waters typically refers to the 12 nautical mile limit around an island or coast.
DESRON 15, the Destroyer Squadron that the USS Mustin belongs to, released two photos of its transit through the Paracels with an accompanying caption, stating the USS Mustin “is underway conducting operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” DESRON 15 describes itself as “U.S. 7th Fleet’s principal surface force,” the 7th Fleet being the U.S. Navy force based at Yokosuka, Japan.
The FONOP follows a bilateral exercise between the U.S. and Singaporean navies on Sunday and Monday, also in the South China Sea. The USS Gabrielle Giffords joined the RSS Steadfast for the first ever drill involving a U.S. littoral combat ship alongside the Singaporean navy.
The USS Gabrielle Giffords is currently based at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. In mid-April it patrolled the South China Sea near the site of a Chinese pressure campaign against a Malaysian-contracted drillship in Malaysian waters. That stand-off has since ended.
“Meeting our partners at sea gives our navies the opportunity to practice maritime proficiencies, and further strengthen the bond between both countries,” said Capt. Ann McCann of the U.S. Navy’s DESRON 7 in a press release. “Engaging with our network of partners in the region is essential to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The last FONOP near the Paracels was on April 28. The maneuvers are meant to exercise the right to innocent passage even in disputed waters, and underline the U.S. position that China’s sweeping maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea are unlawful. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the area overlapping China’s.
On Tuesday, Philippine Defense Chief Delfin Lorenzana discussed the South China Sea with his counterpart in Japan, Defense Minister Taro Kono, the Philippine News Agency reported. That same day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte spoke by phone with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan, according to Vietnamese state media. Both leaders agreed to a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea issue and to continue the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Code of Conduct negotiations with China.