Chinese officials publicly criticized the US on Sunday, July 2, for sailing a warship in the South China Sea. The warship, known as the USS Stethem destroyer, was reportedly sailing less than 12 nautical miles from Triton Island in the Parcel Island archipelago. This island is occupied by Beijing, although Vietnam and Taiwan have also claimed ownership in the past. Lu Kang, the foreign ministry spokesman, stated on Sunday night that Beijing would dispatch military vessels and fighter planes in an attempt to deter any further US interference in those waters.
International law stipulates that a territory can claim waters up to 12 nautical miles from its coast. The USS Stethem sailed within that distance from Triton Island, thus disregarding Beijing’s territorial claim over that land. As reported by Xinhua news agency, a Chinese spokesman said, “ The Chinese side strongly urges the US side to immediately stop such kind of provocative operations that violate China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security.” The warship sailed under the United States Freedom of Navigation program, which challenges territorial claims on oceans and airspace. The US argues that Beijing’s construction of islands on disputed territory in the South China Sea threatens its freedom of navigation. Thus, it disregarded international law by sailing within 22 kilometers of Triton Island’s coast.
Territorial disputes have occurred over land in the South China Sea for many centuries. Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are the main claimants of these waters and islands. However, ownership over the Paracel and Spratly islands, two major clusters of islands, has caused a great deal of conflict in recent years. China is accused of building artificial islands and military facilities on reefs, in addition to patrolling the disputed waters. However, the East Asian nation denies any form of militarization, claiming that its facilities are solely intended for defensive purposes.
This is not the first time that the US has stirred up controversy by sailing within territorial borders since President Trump took office in January. On May 25, a guided-missile destroyer called the USS Dewey sailed within the boundaries of Mischief Reef, which is part of the disputed Spratly Islands and south of the Parcel Islands. James Mattis, the US Defence Secretary, later stated that the US would not recognize China’s occupation of the islands in that region.
These recent warship controversies have further strained the already fragile relationship between the US and China. Although Trump praised China’s President Xi Jinxing after their April meeting at Mar-A-Lago, his administration is also placing pressure on China to denounce North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The Trump administration formally sanctioned two Chinese citizens this month for aiding North Korea, confirming Trump’s frustration with the Chinese government on this issue. Trump also created tension with China by approving a $1.4 billion arms package for Taiwan. This deal implied that the US acknowledges Taiwan as a self-ruled island, despite the fact that China has never renounced its ownership over the land.
Beijing has stated that it will defend its national security and sovereignty by all means necessary in light of recent US warship operations. Unfortunately, the US-Chinese relationship requires much needed improvement as a result of these recent events.