China has reacted angrily after a US naval warship sailed through disputed waters of the South China Sea, saying the move threatened its “sovereignty”.
A Chinese guided-missile destroyer and a naval patrol ship shadowed and gave warnings to the US warship “according to law”, China’s defence ministry said on Tuesday.
The US patrol was a “coercive action that seeks to militarise the South China Sea region” and an “abuse” of freedom of navigation under international law, it added.
Beijing said that the USS Lassen illegally entered Chinese territory when it sailed early on Tuesday near the Spratly, or Nansha, group of islands.
“The action… threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the safety of staff and equipment on those islands and harmed regional peace and stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said.
Lu said Washington should “correct the mistake immediately” to avoid “further harm” to Chinese-US relations.
US Defence Secretary Ash Carter, testifying on Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the USS Lassen had passed within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned US Ambassador Max Baucus, telling him that the patrol was “extremely irresponsible,” the foreign ministry said.
It earlier said the USS Lassen “illegally” entered waters near islands and reefs in the Spratlys without the Chinese government’s permission.
“China will resolutely respond to any country’s deliberate provocations,” the ministry said in a statement that gave no details on precisely where the US ship sailed.
In Washington, US State Department spokesperson John Kirby told a regular briefing that “setting this aside, the US-China relationship is vitally important and one we want to see continue to improve and to grow for the benefit of both our countries, not to mention the region”.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12-nautical mile limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.
Pentagon officials say the US regularly conducts freedom-of-navigation operations around the world to challenge excessive maritime claims. The US Navy last went within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed territory in the Spratlys in 2012.
Freedom of navigation
“Freedom of navigation operations serve to protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” a Pentagon spokesperson, Commander Bill Urban, told DPA news agency on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a US official told AFP news agency that the US Navy will send more warships to sail close to the artificial islands.
The Philippines, which has filed an arbitration case with the United Nations questioning China’s sweeping claims over the sea, led US allies in the region in hailing the warship’s passage through the disputed waters.
“I think everybody would welcome a balance of power anywhere in the world,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino said.
China has been on a reclamation and construction spree in the disputed South China Sea despite objections by other claimants, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, a key shipping lane, with overlapping claims to the sea’s potentially rich mineral resources.