BEIJING // China strongly condemned the United States after an American warship deliberately sailed near one of the Beijing-controlled islands in the hotly contested South China Seain a challenge to Beijing’s vast sea claims.
The missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel chain “to challenge excessive maritime claims of parties that claim the Paracel Islands” without notifying the three claimants beforehand, US defence department spokesman Mark Wright said on Saturday in Washington.
China, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the Paracels and require prior notice from ships transiting what they consider their territorial waters. The latest operation was particularly aimed at China, which has raised tensions with the US and its South-east Asian neighbours by embarking on massive construction of man-made islands and airstrips in contested waters.
Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said that Vietnam respects “innocent passage” of ships through territorial waters in line with international law. State media quoted Mr Binh as reiterating Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratlys and calling on nations to actively and practically contribute to peace and stability in the South China Sea.
The US has claimed the attempts to restrict navigational rights by requiring prior notice are inconsistent with international law and pledged to regularly carry out similar manoeuvres.
In October, another US warship sailed in the nearby Spratly Islands near Subi Reef, where China has built one of seven artificial islands.
The latest operation also drew Beijing’s ire. Defence ministry spokesman Yang Yujun issued a statement saying the “unprofessional and irresponsible” US action “severely violated Chinese law, sabotaged the peace, security and good order of the waters, and undermined the region’s peace and stability”.
In an opinion published on Sunday by the official Xinhua news agency, China described the manoeuvre as a “deliberate provocation” that raised doubts about the Washington’s sincerity just days after secretary of state John Kerry visited Beijing for meetings about the South China Sea and North Korea that were called productive by both sides.
China’s official response has been restrained compared to the public outrage seen online, according to Xinhua. A social media search on Sunday showed a smattering of posts calling on China to adopt a tougher military posture against US encroachment — if not wage war with the US.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea and its islands, reefs and atolls on historic grounds. The area has some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and US officials say ensuring freedom of navigation is in US national interests, while not taking sides in the territorial disputes.
* Associated Press