China lashes out after US warship sails past Mischief Reef in South China Sea
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea including the Spratly Islands but several of its neighbours including The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have competing claims over the islands and reefs.
China on Wednesday deployed fighter jets and lashed out at the US, calling it the “biggest destroyer of peace” after a frontline American warship sailed past a reef close to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS), one of the world’s busiest maritime trade lanes.
The US navy’s destroyer USS Benfold sailed past the Mischief Reef, located close to Spratly Islands, known as Nansha in China, on Wednesday, saying it was part of FONOP (Freedom of Navigation Operation).
Beijing claims nearly the entire SCS including the Spratly Islands but several of its maritime neighbours including The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have competing claims over the islands and reefs.
In July, 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea. The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line”.
The ring-shaped Mischief Reef is located some 250km from The Philippines coast.
It was reported in 2017 that China had built several military installations on the Spratly Islands including on the Mischief Reef to effectively bolster its claim.
Warships from the US navy frequently sail near the disputed islands, triggering sharp criticism from China.
“On September 8, USS Benfold (DDG 65) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law. This FONOP upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea. USS Benfold demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law,” Lt Mark Langford, deputy public affairs officer of US 7th Fleet said in a statement.
“The US engaged in ‘normal operations’ within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef. Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, features like Mischief Reef that are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea. The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterisation under international law,” it said.
By engaging in normal operations within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, the United States demonstrated that vessels may lawfully exercise high-seas freedoms in those areas, Lt Langford’s statement added.
“These missions are rule-of-law based and demonstrate our commitment to upholding the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations.”
“Freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea are a part of daily operations of US military forces throughout the region,” the statement said.
China’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) southern theatre command (STC) issued a strong statement against the US warship’s movements in the SCS.
The command’s spokesperson, Tian Junli, said the operation was carried out without the approval of the Chinese government.
The PLA airforce carried out follow-up surveillance and issued a warning to warship, he said. “The US’s serious violation of China’s sovereignty and security is another ironclad evidence of its aggressive navigation hegemony and militarisation of the South China Sea,” Tian Junli said.
He added that facts have repeatedly proved that the US is an out-and-out “South China Sea security risk maker” and the “biggest destroyer” of peace and stability in the SCS.
The theater command will “remain on high alert, and take all necessary measures to fulfill its duty of protecting national sovereignty and security, as well as peace and stability in the region,” Tian Junli said.