China’s foreign ministry vociferously protested the presence of the USS Chafee near the Paracel Islands on Tuesday, a naval warship conducting a “freedom of navigation” exercise in international waters that Beijing insists fall under Chinese control.
Chinese communist officials claim they “warned away” the Chafee and called the exercise a “provocation.”
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands. Its claims—dismissed at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague last year—overlap with the sovereign territory of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia, and the waters off the coast of Natuna island, Indonesia. Taiwan and Vietnam claim the Paracel Islands, which China refers to as the Xisha Islands.
Reuters confirmed with multiple American military officials that the Chafee challenged China’s “excessive maritime claims” by sailing near the Paracel Islands Tuesday. Officials clarified with Reuters that “unlike in August, when a U.S. Navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea … the destroyer on Tuesday sailed close to but not within that range of the islands.” Reuters describes the activity as “normal maneuvering operations,” according to their sources.
12 nautical miles is the legal limit where international waters end and a nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) begins. China insists it has an EEZ around the various reefs and artificial islands in the Paracel chain despite an international tribunal ruling against them and asserted that the Chafee was present within its EEZ despite reports that it did not sail within that 12 nautical mile limit.
“On October 10, the missile destroyer USS Chafee entered China’s territorial sea off the Xisha Islands to carry out a so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ operation without China’s approval. The Chinese side immediately sent naval ships and fighter planes to identify and verify the US warship according to law and warn and expel it,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Wednesday.
“The relevant behavior of the U.S. warship has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, severely undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests, put in jeopardy the life safety of the frontline personnel from both sides. China is firmly opposed to this and has lodged serious representation with the U.S. side,” Hua added. “We urge the U.S. side to faithfully respect China’s sovereignty and security interests as well as regional countries’ effort to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea and stop such wrongdoings.”
Chinese state media painted a more dramatic image than the report in Reuters, claiming that China actively shooed the U.S. Navy destroyer out of the area. “The frigate Huangshan, two J-11B fighters and one helicopter were sent in response to the U.S. Navy destroyer’s presence, a [Ministry of National Defense] MND spokesperson said in a statement,” the Global Times reported.
This month, however, American officials confirmed that the Chinese keep close contact with American vessels in the region at all times, not just when they wrongly express the Americans have encroached on their territory. In late September, for example, officials confirmed that two Chinese frigates had followed the USS Ronald Reagan during its routine drills and that Chinese government keeps open lines of communication with the Reagan. The commander of the Reagan‘s strike group, Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, described the Chinese as “very professional” in their engagement with the group.
The Trump administration has approved a plan to challenge Chinese territorial claims in the region more often, according to reports published this summer. In remarks to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Trump asserted, “We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea. We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow.”