- Trump administration has carried out its second freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea in less than two months.
- US guided-missile destroyer has sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, part of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
- Previous freedom of navigation operation targeted the Mischief Reef, part of the Spratly Islands.
- China has effectively controlled the Paracels since 1974, and claims baselines around them.
- Trump is due to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg later this week.
The US Navy has sent a warship to sail close to a disputed island, one of the Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea occupied by China, as part of an operation to demonstrate freedom of navigation in the waters.
What is the second US Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea under President Donald Trump. In Trump’s first US Freedom of Navigation operation in May, the USS Dewey sailed near the Mischief Reef claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, an act condemned by China.
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.
This Time the Paracels
An American warship on Sunday sailed close to a disputed island in the South China Sea occupied by Beijing, as part of an operation to demonstrate freedom of navigation in the waters, a US official said, as cited by Fox News and Reuters.
The USS Stethem, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, part of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the official said.
It was the second “freedom-of-navigation operation,” or “fonop” conducted during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Twelve nautical miles marks the territorial limits recognised internationally. Sailing within those 12 miles is meant to show that the United States does not recognise territorial claims there.
“Unlike in the Spratlys, where China has created new artificial territory in the last several years, it has effectively controlled the Paracels since 1974,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a South China Sea expert at the Center for a New American Security, as cited by Reuters.
“It claims illegal straight baselines around the Paracels, and the fonop may have been contesting these,” Rapp-Hooper said.
While US President Donald Trump has largely praised his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Trump is also said to be increasingly disappointed with China’s unwillingness to put more pressure on North Korea in order to reign in its missile and nuclear programs.
Last week, the US administration imposed sanctions on two Chinese citizens and a shipping company for helping North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and accused a Chinese bank of laundering money for Pyongyang.
In addition, last week, the US State Department said the Trump administration has also approved an arms package for Taiwan, which China deems part of its nation and territory, worth about USD 1.4 billion.
Trump is due to speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, next Friday and Saturday.
South China Sea Disputes
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. 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.