South China Sea: US warns of ‘serious threat’ as Beijing tracks US navy vessel

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The US Navy has issued a stern response to China after Beijing accused Washington of “violating international laws” during a routine freedom of navigation operation. Senior Colonel Li Huamin, a spokesman for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command, said sea and air units were deployed to “warn off” US vessels from the region.

Colonel Li claims a US ship had illegally ventured near to the China-occupied Paracel Islands – something Washington has denied.

In a fiercely worded statement, Colonel Li said: “The provocative actions by the US have seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests, seriously violated international laws and regulations and severely damaged the peace and stability of the region.

“It is a brazen act of navigational hegemony.”

US Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Rachel Maul disputes China’s version of events and said the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law”.

The US insists it is the actions of China that is threatening peace in the disputed region.

Lieutenant Maul said: “This freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands.

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas.

“Including the freedom of navigation and overflight and the right of innocent passage of all ships.”

The US regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations in line with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Just last month, two US-flagged vessels have sailed through the contested Spratly Islands as part of scheduled operations.

The USS Barry guided-missile destroyer travelled near the disputed Paracel Islands, this was followed 24 hours later by the USS Bunker Hill aircraft carrier.

China’s Sansha city has established control over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly islands – two disputed archipelagos in the South China Sea.

Beijing has also established military outposts on the artificial islands.

China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea is disputed by claims from neighbouring Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.


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Under international law, a large part of the South China Sea comes under Vietnamese sovereignty.

However, Beijing disagrees and says that the entire waterway up to the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan belongs to China – a claim rejected by an international court of arbitration in 2016.

The contested South China Sea is also one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and is crucial to global trade.

A 2015 US Department of Defense report found an estimated $5.3trillion (£4million) worth of goods are shuttled through the waterways every year.

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