China Charges US Navy with Invading Waters Near South China Sea Islands

China charged the US with breaching its authority on Thursday.

A US Navy destroyer cruised past contentious South China Sea islands in waters Washington claims Beijing has no authority to claim. 

Col. Tian Junli, a spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, said Chinese troops “followed, observed, and evicted” the USS Benfold.

International Treaties

“This conduct by the U.S. significantly damaged China’s authority and defense,” Tian’s remark stated.

“We earnestly implore the U.S. to cease such confrontational activities instantly, or it will suffer the heavy implications of any unanticipated occurrences emerging from these episodes.”

The Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet stated the USS Benfold exercised sailing rights “in the region of the Paracel Islands, following international treaties.”

This was the year’s first freedom-of-navigation operation, or FONOP, in the contentious South China Sea. In 2021, the same vessel did two such operations, near the Spratlys in September and the Paracels in July. 

The U.S. adopts no stance on jurisdiction over the scores of structures in the energy-rich waters where half a dozen states often hold conflicting claims to numerous islands, reefs, rivers, and shoals.

However, it maintains the freedom of free navigation as established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a party. 

Tian’s remark labeled the USS Benfold’s FONOP as an illegal trespass into the territorial waters of the Paracel Islands, which China considers Xisha.

These phrases and their interpretations are at the center of arguments over Beijing’s vast maritime assertions, which the U.S. and others consider inconsistent with international treaties. 

“At the end of the activity, the USS Benfold departed the inordinate claim and resumed activities in the South China Sea,” the Seventh Fleet stated.

The Seventh Fleet also contested China, Taiwan, and Vietnam’s prerequisites that foreign military vessels receive approval or provide “prior notice” before transiting their waters. 

“Straight Baselines”

Last week, a 44-page report produced by the State Department delivered the most extensive refutation of China’s maritime assertions.

Among those contested was Beijing’s creation of so-called “straight baselines.” It creates vast swaths of exclusive seas around otherwise disparate geographical features. These enormous zones exist in four places all across the South China Sea. 

“Illegal and expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a dire threat to the openness of the seas, such as the rights of navigation and airspace, free trade and unhindered traffic, and economic freedom for the South China Sea littoral nations,” the statement read. 

The Seventh Fleet responded directly to Tian’s remarks, stating, “The PRC’s claims about this mission are untrue.” 

“The operation demonstrates our dedication to the idea of freedom of navigation and authorized uses of the water.”

“The US is protecting every nation’s freedom to fly, sail, and function anywhere international law permits, as the USS Benfold demonstrated this week. Nothing the PRC says would dissuade us,” it stated. 

In 2021, the Seventh Fleet performed five FONOPs, and ten the previous year.