South Korean Destroyer Sails near Contested South China Sea Islands

This photo taken on May 5, 2016 shows crew members of China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands, or the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea
AFP/File STR

The South Korean destroyer ROKS Munmu the Great sailed close to the disputed Paracel Islands in mid-September, irritating the Chinese even though South Korean officials say the ship was merely seeking refuge from a typhoon.

Munmu the Great – its unusual name honors a 7th-century king – was on its way home from antipiracy operations off the coast of Somalia when it encountered Typhoon Mangkhut on or around September 15.

A South Korean official told the Wall Street Journal on Friday the destroyer did not have time to seek permission from China before entering what Beijing regards as its territorial waters.

The Chinese Defense Ministry nevertheless accused the South Koreans of violating Chinese law by coming within 12 nautical miles of the Paracels without permission. The Chinese lodged this protest even though they acknowledged the destroyer only spent about 10 minutes within 12 miles of the Paracels. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also got involved and discussed the matter with the South Korean embassy.

“From a humanitarian point of view, we can accept their explanation,” a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said.

The Chinese constantly complain about “freedom of navigation” patrols by the U.S. Navy and other forces seen as challenges to their territorial claims. At the moment tensions between China and the U.S. are running high, while British and Japanese ships are conducting drills in the South China Sea denounced by Beijing as provocative.

South Korea’s anti-piracy activities off the African coast, many of them involving Munmu the Great, have been well-documented. The destroyer was sent to Libya in August after a South Korean national was kidnapped by militants along with three Filipinos.

“We are firmly opposed to other countries taking provocative actions in the name of freedom of navigation and we are against those countries showing their existence in the South China Sea. The Chinese military will fulfill its defense responsibility and strengthen its patrols in the region to safeguard our sovereignty and security and maintain regional peace and stability,” the Chinese Defense Ministry stated on Friday.

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