A U.S. guided-missile destroyer passed near a South China Sea island chain claimed by China as part of a Freedom of Navigation operation and drew complaints from Beijing.
USS Benfold (DDG-65) sailed near the Paracel Islands early Wednesday local time in a FONOP and was monitored by the People’s Liberation Army Navy frigate Xianning (500), according to the Chinese Ministry of Defense.
“This freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging PRC’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” reads a statement from U.S. 7th Fleet.
“At the conclusion of the operation, USS Benfold exited the excessive claim and continued operations in the South China Sea.”
In a statement, the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command complained the transit was a violation of Beijing’s territorial waters around the Paracel chain – called the Xisha Islands by the Chinese.
“The U.S. guided-missile destroyer Benfold illegally broke into China’s Xisha territorial waters without the approval of the Chinese Government, and organized sea and air forces in the southern theater of the People’s Liberation Army Chinese to follow up and monitor and warn them to drive away,” reads the statement from the MoD.
“The U.S. military’s actions have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously undermined peace and stability in the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and norms governing international relations.”
The U.S. denied the claim from the PLA.
“The PLA Southern Theater Command’s 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 Southeastern Asian neighbors in the South China Sea,” reads the statement from 7th Fleet.
The territorial issue specific to the Paracels is China’s claim to a straight baseline around the island chain and requires foreign ships to ask permission to sail between the islands. The U.S. views the seas between the islands as international waters and denies their ships need permission to sail through the chain.
Benfold has been operating with the Japan-based Reagan Carrier Strike Group that began its latest patrol in May. The destroyer performed a similar transit in January.
On Wednesday, 7th Fleet announced that USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) had entered the South China Sea.