Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

China Says PLA Navy Ships Were Sent to ‘Expel’ US Warship From Paracel Islands

The U.S. vessel was in the area to conduct a freedom of navigation operation.

China Says PLA Navy Ships Were Sent to ‘Expel’ US Warship From Paracel Islands
Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr

A U.S. warship was “expelled” from disputed waters claimed by China in the South China Sea, a statement from a spokesperson for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Command noted on Tuesday.

“When U.S. destroyer Barry trespassed into China’s territorial waters off the Xisha [Paracel] Islands on Tue[sday], the PLA Southern Theater Command coordinated with naval and air forces to follow its course; they identified the ship, warned and expelled it,” the spokesperson said, referencing the apparent involvement of USS Barry, a U.S. warship.

USS Barry, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, was in the area to challenge what the United States sees as excessive maritime claims in a freedom of navigation operation. The operation was the first of its kind to be reported since March 10 this year and the third overall to be reported in 2020. Not all U.S. freedom of navigation operations are publicly reported by media.

“These provocative acts by the U.S. side … have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, deliberately increased regional security risks and could easily trigger an unexpected incident,” the Chinese statement added. China regularly protests U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

Follow-up reporting from U.S. Naval Institute News suggested that Chinese warships did not forcefully eject USS Barry. According to one “Navy official” who spoke to USNI News, the U.S. operation was carried out successfully.

The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Defense do not normally announce specific transits or freedom of navigation operations. DoD releases an annual report on all freedom of navigation operations U.S. warships conduct around the world and the specific claims from other states that have been challenged by those operations.

Freedom of navigation operations do not contest territorial claims, but underscore excessive maritime claims by other countries. In the Paracel Islands, previous U.S. freedom of navigation operations have frequently protested China’s straight baselines around its claimed islands and its requirements for prior notification before innocent passage transits through claimed territorial seas.

The U.S. Navy does not exclusively conduct freedom of navigation operations against Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Other claimant states, including U.S. allies and partners like the Philippines and Vietnam, have seen freedom of navigation operations around their held features.

Most U.S. freedom of navigation operations are first reported on by Western media, followed by a statement from the Chinese side. The latest operation marks a rare occasion where a statement from a Chinese PLA theater command emerged before any Western news media reported on the operation.