A U.S. Navy warship sailed near some of the Chinese military’s most advanced weapons outposts in the South China Sea on Tuesday, drawing a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
The guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville carried out a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Spratly Islands to challenge Chinese claims to own 90 percent of the sea, Navy Lt. Luka Bakic said in a statement.
Lt. Bakic also denied Chinese military claims the warship was driven out of the sea.
“The PRC’s statement about this mission is false,” he said. “USS Chancellorsville conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in waters where high seas freedoms apply.”
The operation is part of defending the rights of all nations to fly sail and operate freely in international waters, the spokesman added
“Nothing the PRC says otherwise will deter us,” Lt. Bakic said.
Tian Junli, a spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, said in a statement that the warship “trespassed” near what China calls the Nansha islands without Chinese permission.
“The actions of the U.S. military seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security,” he said, adding that the operation revealed the United States to be a “provocateur against peace in the region.”
The warship passage was the first since President Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia earlier this month.
China cut off military talks with the United States in August following the visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, subsequently staging the largest war games around Taiwan in decades, including 11 ballistic missile firing that landed near the island.
Lt. Bakic said the PLA statement “is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”
China has built up a total of 114 acres on three small islands in the Spratlys: Cuarteron Reef, Hughes Reef and Gaven Reef. The Pentagon’s latest report on the Chinese military states that since 2018 Chinese-occupied Spratly outposts are armed with advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles along with military jamming gear.
The missiles and jammers are “the most capable land-based weapons systems deployed by any claimant in the disputed South China Sea to date.”
During a mid-2021 naval operation by U.S. and Australian navy ships the PLA deployed a spy ship and surveillance aircraft to the Spratlys.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, where vessels carrying an estimated $5 trillion in goods annually pass, under a vague historical claim.
An international tribunal rejected China’s claims as illegal in 2016 although China has refused to recognize the ruling by the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that ruled in favor of a challenge brought by the Philippines.
“As long as some countries continue to claim and assert limits on rights that exceed their authority under international law, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all,” Lt. Bakich said.
The Spratlys are claimed by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Customary international law permits all ships, including warships to conduct “innocent passage” through territorial seas.
“By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam,” Lt. Bakic said.
In October, two Australian warships were closely shadowed by the Chinese military after sailing near the Spratlys, as part of a joint show of force with the U.S. and Japanese naval forces. The ships were joined by the Japanese destroyer Kirisame and Navy destroyer USS Milius.
During that transit, the Chinese military showed “significant increase in tactical acumen and use of [electronic warfare] capabilities,” an Australian defense official told local media.