US Navy Takes Yet Another Dig at Beijing on South China Sea 'Freedom of Navigation'
© Photo : MC2 Arthur RosenArleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) conducts routine underway operations. Benfold is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
© Photo : MC2 Arthur Rosen
The principal of freedom of navigation grants free passage for ships under any sovereign state's flag in all cases, aside from some exceptions clarified by international law. The principle is codified in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - an accord not signed or ratified by the United States.
The US 7th Fleet stated on Saturday that one of its destroyers "asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea" earlier in the day, thus "challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Vietnam, and Taiwan."
According to the statement, USS Destroyer Benfold carried out an operation near the Spratly Islands that was described as being consistent with international law, later exiting "the excessive claim" and continuing operations in the South China Sea.
"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 7th Fleet asserted. "Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all states –including their warships –enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea."
The UN Convention that the US Navy referred to permits ships flying the flag of any sovereign state to sail freely and without any interference from other states, apart from some exceptions provided for in international law. Washington has never signed or ratified this convention, but exercises the rights that it protects actively, particularly in the South China Sea.
US freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea have been a long-standing issue for China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. All these countries claim sovereignty over the area, with China erecting military facilities on the islands.
Beijing criticized Washington for using the South China Sea to escalate tensions in the region.
"The US turns a blind eye to the historical merits and objective facts of the South China Sea issue, violates and distorts international law and breaks its long-held public commitment of not taking a position on the South China Sea sovereignty issue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
USS Benfold carried out a FONOP operation to challenge China's claims for the second time this week. Earlier on Wednesday, it performed a similar operation in the Paracel Islands - an area also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Despite the US' confidence that its operations comply with international law, a spokesman for the Southern Theater Command of China’s People's Liberaton Army (PLA) Air Force Col. Tian Junli said that the actions "violated China's sovereignty and security", undermining "the peace and stability of the South China Sea" and "seriously [violating] international law."