Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

South China Sea: US Navy Warship Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation Near Paracel Islands

A U.S. Navy warship sailed near China-held features in the Paracel Islands.

South China Sea: US Navy Warship Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation Near Paracel Islands
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist First Class Nathan Carpenter/Released

On Friday, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer conducted a freedom of navigation operation near islands claimed by China and Vietnam in the South China Sea. According to the U.S. Navy, Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer sailed near unspecified Chinese-held islands in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

China said the U.S. warship had entered its territorial waters without permission. Beijing maintains straight baselines around the Paracel Islands, which the U.S. sees as not valid under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China additionally requires prior notification for so-called innocent passage transits by foreign warships near the Paracel Islands.

“We again stress that China has irrefutable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and their nearby waters. No form of provocation by foreign military ships and aircraft can change this fact,” a statement by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command noted.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels were deployed to monitor the U.S. ship’s passage near the Paracel features.

The U.S. government began conducting regular freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-held features in the South China Sea in October 2015. The United States claims that these operations only challenge excessive maritime entitlement claims and not territorial claims. U.S. freedom of navigation operations have also challenged excessive claims made by U.S. allies and partners.

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The latest operation comes a little more than two weeks after another also conducted by USS Wayne E. Meyer. On August 28, the vessel sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, two features where China has built up large artificial islands. Both features are in the Spratly group, where they are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

The Trump administration increased the tempo of U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. This year, six such operations have been reported. Other operations may have been carried out without publicity. The United States also conducts overflight operations in the South China Sea.

The U.S. operation followed a transit by a Canadian frigate, HMCS Ottawa, through the Taiwan Strait.

“This route was chosen as it was the most direct route between UN Security Council sanctions monitoring activities in Northeast Asia and engagements in Southeast Asia,” the Canadian Department of National Defense said last Tuesday about the transit.

“The Royal Canadian Navy does not conduct so-called Freedom of Navigation operations aimed at challenging the territorial claims of other nations, and the ship’s transit was conducted in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”