BEIJING — The U.S. Navy on Tuesday dismissed Beijing’s protests over a “freedom of navigation operation” conducted near a Chinese-held island in the South China Sea, in the latest incident drawing new attention to one of the world’s potential military flashpoints.
In an unusual move, the Navy’s 7th Fleet issued a rebuttal to China’s objections to Tuesday’s mission, calling it “the latest in a long string of [Chinese] actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims” in the South China Sea. China claims the area virtually in its entirety.
The Navy said that China’s sweeping maritime claims pose a serious threat to the freedom of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.
“As long as some countries continue to claim and assert limits on rights that exceed their authority under international law, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all,” it said.
The Navy said its guided missile cruiser Chancellorsville on Tuesday “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law.”
China called the action illegal and said it mobilized naval and air assets to issue warnings and drive off the ship.
“The U.S. military’s actions have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, which is further ironclad evidence of its pursuit of navigational hegemony and militarization of the South China Sea,” spokesperson for the Southern Theater Command, Air Force Col. Tian Junli, was quoted as saying.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters,” Tian said.
The long-seething South China Sea territorial conflicts involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have long been regarded as a delicate fault line in the U.S.-China rivalry in the region.
While the U.S. lays no claims to the strategic waterway, where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade transits each year, it has said that freedom of navigation and overflight is in America’s national interest. The sea is also home to rich fishing stocks and a potential wealth of energy and mineral resources.
In March, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John C. Aquilino told The Associated Press that China has fully militarized at least three of several islands it built in the disputed waters with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment. He described it as an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby.
Then in July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on China to comply with a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s vast claims on historical grounds in the South China Sea.
On a visit to the area earlier this month, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. She also announced an additional aid of $7.5 million to Philippine maritime law enforcement agencies.
That came shortly after the Philippine navy alleged a Chinese coast guard vessel had forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris as Filipino sailors were towing it to their island.