A U.S. destroyer challenged China’s claims in the South China Sea Sunday, sparking outrage in Beijing.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, part of the disputed Paracel Islands, territories controlled by China but claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. This appears to be the Trump administration’s second freedom-of-navigation operation in fewer than 40 days.
The U.S. sent the USS Dewey within six miles of Chinese artificial islands in the Spratly Islands in May.
While American reports claim that the Stethem was merely shadowed by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel, the Chinese Ministry of Defense claimed it sent warships and fighter jets to drive out the U.S. vessel. The PLAN reportedly sent out the guided-missile destroyer Luoyang, guided-missile frigate Suqian, and minesweeper Taishan, along with two J-11B fighters in response.
Calling the operation a “serious offense,” Wu Qian, a spokesperson for the Chinese defense ministry, asserted that U.S. actions have “seriously damaged mutual strategic trust, seriously undermined the political climate for [U.S.-China] military relations, seriously endangered the lives of soldiers at the front line, and seriously sabotaged regional peace and security.”
The Chinese military has vowed to increase its regional presence through the deployment of defense assets and increase patrols in the South China Sea, as well as resolutely defend China’s national sovereignty.
China has been constructing military outposts in both the Paracels and the Spratlys and equipping them with armaments to protect its claims to the region, which were discredited by an international tribunal last year, through force.
China has constructed airstrips and hangars and protected harbors for the air and naval units in the Paracel Islands. The military has even deployed surface-to-air missiles. In the Spratly Islands, China has built airstrips and reinforced hangars, possible missile silos, and point defense systems. Despite clear signs of militarization, which breaks Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise to former President Barack Obama, Beijing strongly denies that it is militarizing the disputed South China Sea and instead places the burden of guilt on the U.S.
“If somebody is flexing their muscles on your doorstep, can’t you at least get a slingshot?” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang asked in December, when reports of China’s activities in the Spratlys began to surface. “The necessary military installations are for self-defense and are fair and legal.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has accused China of “shredding trust” in the contested South China Sea, with the U.S. military promising to fly and sail wherever international law permits.
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