Chinese Frigate Warns Off US Destroyer in Freedom of Navigation Operation in South China Sea

A handout photo dated 14 June 2017, made available by the US Navy on 10 August 2017 showing the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) maneuvering alongside the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6, unseen) for a refueling-at-sea at the Philippine Sea. Media reports on 11 August 2017 state the USS John S. McCain sailed past an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea on 10 August 2017, prompting China to protest its action. The vessel passed the island at a distance of 12 miles as part of what the US authorities called 'freedom of navigation operation'. Photo: US Navy/Brenton Poyser handout/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • Chinese naval vessel has warned off a US ship carrying out a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea.
  • Interaction between the Chinese and US ships was ‘safe and professional’, according to an unnamed US official.
  • China’s Foreign Ministry has once again protests the US naval visits in what it claims are its own territorial waters.
  • China ‘scored a coup’ during ASEAN’s latest security summit when ASEAN countries issued a watered-down statement on the South China Sea disputes.
  • US, Japan, and Australia have denounced China’s island building and militarization of the South China Sea.

A Chinese frigate has warned off a US destroyer carrying out a new freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, which is almost entirely claimed by China.

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

What is known as America’s 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.

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.

The second US Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea under President Donald Trump was carried out in early July, and was also condemned by China.

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.

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.

‘Safe and Professional’

A Chinese frigate and a US destroyer engaged in a heated communication exchange in the South China Sea on Thursday, AFP reported citing own sources.

The USS John S. McCain destroyer sailed within six nautical miles of Mischief Reef – an artificial island built by China – on Thursday in the third “freedom of navigation” operation of the Trump administration so far, a US official is quoted as saying.

The reef is part of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which is the scene of rival claims between China and neighboring countries.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the US official told AFP a Chinese frigate sent radio warnings at least 10 times to the USS McCain.

“They called and said ‘please turn around, you are in our waters’,” the official said.

“We told them we are a US (ship) conducting routine operations in international waters,” the official added.

The US official said the interactions were all “safe and professional,” with the operation of the USS McCain lasting about six hours from start to finish.

However, on Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry protested against the voyage of the US naval vessel in what it keeps claiming are Chinese territorial waters.

China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said the actions of the USS John S. McCain had violated Chinese and international law, “seriously” impairing the country’s sovereignty and security.

He also insisted that such operations “seriously endanger lives”.

China is strongly dissatisfied with this,” Geng said in a statement, adding that Beijing would lodge an official protest with Washington.

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Logan declined to comment on whether there had been a freedom of navigation sailing but he said the United States would continue to do such operations.

“All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” he said.

‘Scoring a Coup’

The US move came four days after the United States, Australia and Japan denounced Beijing’s island-building and militarization of the South China Sea on the sidelines of a security forum of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Manila.

AFP comments that in recent years Beijing has managed to weaken regional resistance to its South China Sea claims by courting some ASEAN members.

It adds that on Sunday, China scored a coup when ASEAN ministers issued a diluted statement on the dispute and agreed to its terms on talks at the Manila meeting.

China insists that a much-delayed code of conduct between it and ASEAN members over the disputed sea must not be legally binding, a demand to which Southeast Asian countries have so far acquiesced.

Chinese defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian said the situation in the South China Sea has “stabilized” due to the “joint efforts” of China and neighbouring countries but the US operation threatened “peace and stability in the region”.

“The US military’s provocative actions will only encourage the Chinese military to further strengthen the defense capacity building and firmly defend national sovereignty and security,” Qian said.

Following the ASEAN Forum, the US promised deeper defense cooperation to Vietnam which annoyed China by insisting that concerns over island-building and militarization in the South China Sea be mentioned in an ASEAN communique.

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