Chinese officials threatened “consequences” for American forces after a U.S. warship sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea to commemorate an international ruling condemning Beijing’s attempt to seize the waterways.
“By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea,” the U.S. Navy said after the USS Benfold, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed unannounced near the Paracel Islands.
China’s military has established positions in the Paracels and the Spratly Islands in a bid to extend control over most of the South China Sea, one of the most heavily trafficked waterways in the world. The U.S. destroyer’s route Monday took American sailors in the vicinity of Woody Island, the Paracel outpost where Chinese forces have built an air base, deployed surface-to-air missiles, and at least “test-fired” an anti-ship cruise missile, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
“We strongly condemn and resolutely oppose this, and we urge the US side to immediately stop their provocative actions and to strictly control their maritime and air activities,” Chinese People’s Liberation Army spokesman Tian Junli said. "Otherwise, the US side will need to bear all consequences that arise from this.”
Their expansion has come at the expense of neighboring states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which brought an international challenge to China’s claims in the Hague, where a tribunal ruled against Beijing only July 12, 2016.
The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, which raises the stakes of any clash between Chinese and Philippine forces in the South China Sea. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China that "an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments,” in an echo of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt to buttress U.S. allies in the region during his tenure at the State Department.
“We call on the PRC to abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small,” Blinken said.
Blinken’s choice of words was another jab at China, designed to remind officials in capitals around the region of an infamous message to aggrieved neighboring states in the early days of the dispute. “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact,” then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in 2010.
A senior Chinese official, insisting that their claims are backed by tradition and international law, rejected the international tribunal’s ruling as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper” before portraying the U.S. as the aggressor in the South China Sea.
“The U.S. abuses bilateral military agreements that smack of the Cold War to threat[en] to use force on China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday, per the briefing transcript. “This exposes its power politics logic and hegemonic practices. It is self-evident who is seeking coercion and intimidation and threatening freedom and security of navigation.”
Chinese officials portrayed the U.S. freedom of navigation operation as a victory for Beijing, saying that the People’s Liberation Army "warned them and drove them away,” but American officials dismissed the statement.
“The PRC's statement about this mission is false,” the American side said. “USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters ... The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing PRC says otherwise will deter us.”
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke