U.S. Destroyer Makes ‘Innocent Passage’ Past Chinese-controlled Island Chain in the South China Sea

May 10, 2024 6:46 AM - Updated: May 10, 2024 11:05 AM
USS Halsey sails through the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea on May 10, 2024. US Navy Photo

A U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed through the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea on Friday as part of a Freedom of Navigation Operation, U.S. 7th Fleet announced on Friday.
USS Halsey (DDG-97) tested Beijing’s restrictions on sailing past the Chinese-controlled islands that run counter to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention.

“This freedom of navigation operation 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 the PRC’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” reads the statement from U.S. 7th Fleet.

Innocent passage is the right of a warship to transit within 12 nautical miles of another country’s coast without prior notification “so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state,” according to Article 19 of the UNLOSC.

That means a warship can’t launch or recover aircraft, fire weapons, use certain radars or take any other action that would interrupt the direct passage of the ship.

Screen shot of a Weibo post showing a Chinese warship monitoring Halsey’s transit through the Paracel Island chain. Image via Weibo

“The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is unlawful,” reads the statement from 7th Fleet.
“By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed by the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage is not subject to such restrictions.”

The operation also tested China’s claim of a strait baseline over the Paracels, which China calls the Xisha Islands. Beijing claims that warships sailing through the island chain need prior notification to enter.

“International law does not permit continental State, like the PRC, to establish baselines around entire dispersed island groups. With these baselines, the PRC has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law,” reads the statement.

In a statement on the Chinese social media site Weibo, the People’s Liberation Army claimed that Chinese warships expelled Halsey from the island chain.

“The U.S. has seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, which is another ironclad proof of its ‘maritime hegemony’ and ‘militarization’ of the South China Sea, and fully demonstrates that the U.S. is an out-and-out ‘security risk maker in the South China Sea’ and the ‘biggest saboteur’ of peace and stability in the South China Sea,” reads a translated statement from the PLA’s Southern Command Theater.

The operation comes a day after Halsey transited the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday and as the U.S. and Philippines conclude the Balikatan 2024 exercise series.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
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