A pair of U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations on two consecutive days in the South China Sea this week has irked Chinese officials at a time they are seeking to ease trade tensions with the U.S.
On Thursday, Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Paracel Islands. On Wednesday, Littoral Combat Ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10) conducted a FONOP near the Spratly Islands, according to a statement from U.S. 7th Fleet spokesperson Cmdr. Reann Mommsen.
“USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) challenged the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and also contested China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” Mommsen’s statement said.
Since 1974, China has occupied the Paracels, after its military forces seized a Vietnamese garrison on the western islands, according to the CIA World Factbook. Rich fishing grounds surround the islands and the region has the potential for oil and gas exploration.
Giffords steamed past a land formation known as Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands area. China claims this reef is an island, but international law does not recognize the landmass as an island, according to Mommsen.
“USS Gabrielle Giffords demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law,” Mommsen’s statement said. “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 characterization under international law. 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.”
The Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds. The region also potentially holds oil and gas deposits. The potential to gain economically from such natural resources and the islands’ location is why several nations claim either all or some of the islands, according to the CIA World Factbook.
China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim the entire chain of islands. Brunei claims an exclusive economic zone over this area. Malaysia and the Philippines each claim portions of the islands.
Each nation also has relatively small military detachments occupying nearly half of the islands.
“The U.S. recently has kept sending vessels and planes to stir up trouble in the South China Sea under the pretext of freedom of navigation,” said Senior Colonel Li Huamin, a spokesperson for the Southern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to a statement released Friday by China’s military. Li urged “the US side to stop such provocative acts immediately so as to avoid unexpected incidents.”
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters,” Li’s statement said. “No matter what tricks the US vessels and aircraft may play, the Chinese military is determined and has the ability to safeguard the national sovereignty and security and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Also on Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry responded to the pair of FONOPs. Gabrielle Giffords’ passage “illegally” entered waters near Mischief Reef and Wayne E. Meyer “intruded” in the nation’s territorial seas off of the Paracel Islands, said Geng Shuang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson. He was speaking during a regularly scheduled press briefing Friday, according to the official English language transcript released by the Chinese government. Chinese military vessels tracked the U.S. Navy ship movements, he added.
“The U.S. move severely undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea. We firmly oppose that. China has made stern representations and strong protests to the U.S. side,” Geng Shuang said, according to the official transcript. “China respects and safeguards all countries’ freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea according to international law. That said, we firmly oppose the behavior of any country to undermine China’s sovereignty and security under the pretext of such freedom. Currently, the situation in the South China Sea is stable, and all parties concerned are focusing on dialogue and cooperation. We urge the US to immediately stop such provocations that hurt regional peace and tranquility. China will take all necessary measures to safeguard national sovereignty and security as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
However, during the same media briefing, Geng Shuang said China and the U.S. remain in close communication regarding resolving the series of tariffs each nation placed on imports from the other. “We hope the US will work with China to find a solution on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit. This serves the interests of both sides and the rest of the world,” Geng Shuang said.
Simmering trade disputes or other events do not influence when or if the U.S. Navy will conduct FONOPS, Mommsen said in her statement.
“U.S. forces routinely conduct freedom of navigation assertions throughout the world. All of our operations are designed to be conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows — regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events,” Mommsen’s statement said.