China Slams US ‘Trespassing’ in South China Sea after Trump’s First Freedom of Navigation Operation

An aerial view of an unidentified island, part of chain of islands in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan island, Philippines, 21 April 2017. Photo: Francis Malasig/EPA/REX/Shutterstock


  • China has slammed the US for not asking its permission and therefore ‘trespassing’ with a US Navy ship in the South China Sea.
  • China’s reaction has been in response to the first American Freedom of Navigation operation under President Donald Trump – sailing near the Mischief Reef.
  • Action taken by the US vessel ‘undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests’, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
  • It has accused the US of disrupting its South China Sea dialogue with ASEAN nations.
  • Freedom of Navigation operations aim to preserve rights guaranteed to all nations under international law, US Department of Defense has stated.
  • They are ‘not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements’, it says.

China has condemned the first US Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea under President Donald Trump, stating that America should have asked for its permission.

Under its Freedom of Navigation program, the US challenges territorial claims on world’s oceans and airspace by sailing or patrolling in the said areas.

Since October 2015, under the Obama Administration, US ships have been patrolling near the artificial islands built by China in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea to demonstrate that they are located in international waters, not in Chinese waters – therefore angering Beijing.

The American Freedom of Navigation program has been seen in China as an infringement on its “lawful” claims over the South and East China Seas, two of the world’s most important waterways.

US officials have revealed that a warship of the US Navy has sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea thus challenging Chinese claims in what has been described as a Freedom of Navigation operation.

All or parts of the islands and territorial waters in the South China Sea are disputed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei.

China has been especially assertive in the area recently, and has not shied away from harsh diplomatic confrontation with the other claimants.

It claims as its border in the South China Sea the so called Nine-Dash Line (also referred to as the Ten-Dash Line or the Eleven-Dash Line), a demarcation line, with the claimed territories including the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, the Pratas Islands, and the Macclesfield Bank, among others.

In July 2016, in a case brought by the Philippines, an arbitral tribunal in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague found no legal basis for China’s claim of “historic rights” within the Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea.

According to the tribunal’s ruling, it found no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources within the Nine-Dash Line. The ruling was adamantly rejected by the Chinese government.

Regardless of the ruling in favor of the Philippines, the next Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, has declared his “realignment” with China and has agreed that China and the Philippines should hold joint naval drills, even though he did order the Philippine Navy to boost its presence on the islands under Philippine control.

China has recently installed rocket launchers on a disputed island in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in order to fend off Vietnam’s claims, according to a report.

Territorial waters are defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as extending no more than 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline. It also gives states an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline meaning that most of the Spratly Islands are in the territorial waters of the Philippines and Malaysia.

‘Without Permission from the Chinese Government’

China on Thursday accused the US of trespassing after the USS Dewey sailed near the Mischief Reef claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey entered the area “without permission from the Chinese government,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters at a regular press briefing, as cited by AFP.

He added that the US Navy ship had “trespassed in the waters near the relevant islands and reefs.”

“The relevant action taken by the US vessel undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests, and is very likely to cause unexpected sea and air accidents,” Lu said.

On behalf of China, he urged the United States to discontinue its “provocative actions” in the South China Sea.

Last week, China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), including ASEAN members the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, agreed on a framework for creating a new code of conduct for ships and aircraft operating in the region.

“The situation in the South China Sea is cooling down and showing positive signs of development,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing.

“What the US has done is cause severe disruptions to this process of dialogue and consultation. It will bring itself no good while hurting others,“ he added.

A handout photo made available by the US Navy on 25 May 2017 shows Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) transiting the South China Sea, 06 May 2017. Photo: US Navy/Petty Officer 3rd Class Kryzenti/Handout/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

‘Wherever International Law Allows’

The USS Dewey sailed less than 12 nautical miles from Mischief Reef, part of the Spratly Islands, on Thursday morning local time, a US official said earlier, the first Freedom of Navigation operation under Trump.

Speaking earlier in the day, US Department of Defense spokesman, Major Jamie Davis, said US forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis and will fly and sail “wherever international law” allows.

“We have a comprehensive Freedom of Navigation Operations program that seeks to challenge excessive maritime claims in order to preserve the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” Davis said in a statement to AFP.

The exercises are “not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” he added.

Earlier, US-based South China Sea expert Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Reuters that the USS Dewey operation was the first conducted by the United States close to an artificial feature built by China not entitled to a territorial sea under international law.

Previous freedom of navigation operations have gone within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, two other features in the Spratlys built up by China, but both of those features are entitled to a territorial sea.

Mischief Reef was not entitled to a territorial sea as it was underwater at high tide before it was built up by China and was not close enough to another feature entitled to such a territorial sea, said Poling.

In his words, it is unclear whether the US warship had engaged in a real challenge to the Chinese claims by turning on radar or launching a helicopter or boat, actions not permitted in a territorial sea under international law.

The new Freedom of Navigation mission of the US Navy in the South China Sea is expected to worsen America’s relations with China in spite of the seeming respite from Trump’s fiery criticism of China after the new US President welcomed his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Florida in April.

China and the US have been exchanging accusations for years of “militarizing” the South China Sea.

It is unknown if or how the latest US maneuver in the South China Sea might affect China’s willingness to pressure North Korea into stopping its ballistic missile and nuclear test provocations – for which the US has been urging Beijing.

In addition to China, the US Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea region have also been deemed as directed against Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam as well.

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