Beijing | An American military ship crossed Thursday in the South China Sea near an archipelago controlled by Beijing, an act described as “provocation” by the Chinese army which protested and demanded its departure.
The destroyer USS Benfold “exercised its navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, in accordance with international law,” the US Navy said.
This archipelago is also claimed by Vietnam. But China has controlled all of it for nearly 50 years.
The Chinese army denounced in a press release an “illegal entry” and “without authorization” of the ship in the waters of the Paracels.
The Navy and Air Force were ordered to “track and watch, as well as warn and dispatch” the destroyer, she said.
“We solemnly demand that the United States immediately cease these provocations. Otherwise, they will expose themselves to the serious and unpredictable consequences of these incidents,” the army said in its statement.
China claims to have been the first nation to discover and name the islands of the South China Sea, through which passes much of the current trade between Asia and the rest of the world.
It thus claims almost the entire maritime area.
A number of riparian countries (Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei) however have competing, sometimes overlapping, sovereignty claims.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague (Netherlands) ruled in 2016 that Beijing’s historic claims in the South China Sea were unfounded. China ignored this decision, deeming the institution incompetent to rule on territorial disputes.
The United States and other Western countries regularly carry out “freedom of navigation operations”, ostensibly with the aim of asserting the international character of this sea.
Thursday’s dispatch of the USS Benfold is the first operation of its kind in 2022. It comes a week after Washington accused Beijing of “illegally” claiming most of the South China Sea.
This sea is one of the main points of friction between Chinese and Americans, whose relations are also strained around the fate of Taiwan and Hong Kong, human rights or trade issues.
For several years, Beijing has cemented its control over certain islets and atolls in the South China Sea, notably in the Spratly archipelago, by carrying out expansion works and setting up military installations there.