A US Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed through waters near the Paracel islands in the South China Sea, challenging China’s claim to the area, the Navy has said.
The USS Barry undertook the so-called “freedom of navigation operation” on Tuesday, a week after Beijing upped its claims to the region by designating an official administrative district for the islands.
The US sought to assert the “rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law,” the Navy said in a statement released Thursday in Manila.
“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose an unprecedented threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight and the right of innocent passage of all ships,” it said.
The move came amid a rise in US-China tensions over the novel coronavirus epidemic, in which Washington has accused Beijing of hiding and downplaying the initial outbreak in December and January in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The United States rejects China’s territorial claim to much of the South China Sea, including the Paracels, also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The region is believed to have valuable oil and gas deposits.
In a statement on the People’s Liberation Army website, the Chinese military said it had mobilized sea and air assets to track and warn the US vessel away from “Chinese territorial waters.”
The PLA accused the United States of “provocative acts” that “seriously violated international law and China’s sovereignty and security interests.”
The US action was “also incompatible with the current joint efforts of international community to fight against the COVID-19,” it said.
Last week China sought to further advance its territorial claims when it announced that the Paracel and nearby Spratly islands, the Macclesfield Bank and their surrounding waters would be administered under two new districts of Sansha city, which China created on nearby Woody Island in 2012.
It also announced official Chinese names for 80 islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea, including reefs, seamounts, shoals and ridges, 55 of them submerged in water--objected to and not recognized by the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the Philippines, through the Department of Foreign Affairs voiced its strong protest against China’s unilateral establishment of two districts in Hainan province with administrative jurisdiction over the heavily contested South China Sea, saying the act was illegal and an infringement of the Philippine sovereignty.
“The Philippine government has protested since 2012 China’s unlawful establishment of Sansha City and the extent of its administrative jurisdiction, which encompasses Philippine territory and maritime zones in the West Philippine Sea. It does not recognize Sansha, nor its constituent units, nor any subsequent acts emanating from them,” the DFA said, in a statement a week after filing the diplomatic protest with China.
Last April 18, Beijing announced that its so-called districts of “Nansha” and “Xisha” would have administrative authority over the Spratlys and the Paracels, respectively, under the authority of the local government in Sansha, a city in China’s Hainan province.
The DFA said: “The Philippines protests as well the illegal designation of Kagitingan Reef within the KIG as administrative center for the so-called Nansha district. Kagitingan Reef is within the Kalayaan Island Group and is thus an integral part of Philippine territory.”
In its diplomatic protest, the DFA said: “The establishment and supposed extent of jurisdiction of ‘Sansha City’ of which the new two districts are part, violate Philippine territorial sovereignty over the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc [Scarborough Shoal], and infringes on Philippine sovereign rights over the waters and continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea.”
Citing the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, the DFA reminded China that the PCA has already “comprehensively addressed China’s excessive claims and illegal actions in the South China Sea.”
In its decision, the PCA ruled that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea and that China’s “nine-dash line” was invalid.
“The Philippines calls on China to adhere to international law, including the UNCLOS, as well as to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, specifically Paragraph 5 thereof, under which parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” the DFA stressed.
China has ignored and downplayed the PCA ruling, maintaining it has “indisputable” and “historical” claim over nearly the entire waters even as it encroaches on the territories of its smaller neighbors like the Philippines.
Besides China and Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea, where oil and gas deposits have been discovered in several areas.
Maritime experts said that China’s recent move to bring all its claimed territories under the control of two districts was a way of reinforcing their nine-dash line claim, which is considered excessive and a violation of international law. With AFP
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