Beijing accuses US of entering its waters around islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan without permission.
China has reacted with fury after the United States Navy sent a warship through waters in the disputed South China Sea near the Paracel Islands in a mission it said was to “assert” navigational rights and freedoms, but China said was illegal.
The Chinese military’s Southern Theatre Command said on Thursday the USS Curtis Wilbur had entered the waters without permission, and that its ships and planes followed the US vessel.
Spokesperson Tian Junli said the PLA had “expelled” the USS Curtis Wilbur, describing the US as a “true troublemaker”, state broadcaster CGTN reported.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea under its so-called nine-dash line that has been dismissed as without basis by the international tribunal at The Hague. Taiwan, as well as the littoral states of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia also claim all or parts of the sea.
In a statement, the US 7th fleet said the USS Curtis Wilbur, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, sailed through the South China Sea “in the vicinity” of the Paracel Islands on May 20 in an operation to uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognised under international law.
“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations,” the statement said.
The South China Sea has emerged as a chief flashpoint in deteriorating relations between the US and China, with Washington rejecting Beijing’s claims in the strategic waterway where it has stepped up the construction of artificial islands and expanded rocky islets to establish military bases.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, known as Xisha in China and Hoang Sa in Vietnam. The island chain lies about 400 kilometres (250 miles) east of Vietnam and 350 kilometres (220 miles) south of China.
The US Navy said all three require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel or warship engages in “innocent passage” through the territorial sea. Under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all countries – including their warships – enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea, it added, saying that it had not sought prior notification or permission from any of the claimants.
The US has increased so-called “freedom of navigation” operations in recent years, not only in the South China Sea but also in the Taiwan Strait where the USS Curtis Wilbur sailed on Tuesday. China said that operation put “peace and stability” at risk.
“The United States upholds freedom of navigation as a principle,” the US Navy statement said, stressing that its operations were carried out in accordance with international law. It previously sent a warship – the USS John S McCain – close to the Paracels in February.
“As long as some countries continue to assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and that purport to restrict unlawfully the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all States, the United States will continue to defend those rights and freedoms.”