The Chinese military is claiming it expelled a U.S. Navy ship on Tuesday that entered the disputed South China Sea, despite the Navy’s ongoing, weeks-long presence there.
The U.S. Navy ship in question, the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry, allegedly crossed into China’s Xisha territorial waters, the Chinese military claimed in a statement. Xisha is the Chinese name applied to the disputed Paracel Islands located in the South China Sea.
“The southern theater of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army organized sea and air forces to track, monitor, verify, and identify the US ships throughout the journey, and warned and expelled them,” the translated statement reads. “The provocative actions of the United States seriously violated relevant international law norms, seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, artificially increased regional security risks, and were prone to cause unexpected incidents. “
“We urge the United States to focus on the prevention and control of its national epidemic situation, do more useful things for international anti-epidemic, and immediately stop military operations that are not conducive to regional security and peace and stability,” the Chinese military statement continues. “The theater forces will resolutely perform their duties and missions, resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security, and firmly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
An unnamed U.S. Navy source told USNI News that the USS Barry’s operations proceeded as planned and that they had not encountered any unsafe or unprofessional behavior from China’s warships or military aircraft.
The U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet was not available to respond to a request for comment regarding the recent incident on Wednesday morning.
Despite China’s claims, the U.S. Navy sent yet another warship through the South China Sea on Wednesday. Guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill transited the sea for a Freedom of Navigation operation near the Spratly Islands. U.S. Navy ships have been in the South China Sea for at least the past two weeks, as the ships conducted an exercise with the Royal Australian Navy beginning April 13, the Navy said.
The incident comes as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been observed expanding its reach throughout the South China Sea, affixing Chinese names to chains of islands that China claims in the region.
In the last two weeks China’s State Council, the nation’s top administrative body, approved the creation of two new municipal districts: the Nansha District, based at Fiery Cross Reef, an artificial island built by China to oversee all of the disputed Spratly Islands; and the Xisha District based on Woody Island, to oversee the Paracel Islands.
Vietnam and Taiwan also dispute ownership over the islands China has claimed.
Following the announcement of the new districts, China’s Global Television Network reported that Xisha District’s Sansha City is to be regarded as a prefecture-level city.
Pooja Bhatt, author of Nine-Dash Line: Deciphering the South China Sea Conundrum, told Radio Free Asia that China’s moves are designed to effect a reclassification of the islands, which were originally classified as rocks due to lack of human habitation or economic activity. Bhatt said that by inhabiting the rocks, China is aiming to have them reclassified as islands entitled to territorial waters claims, which would extend legitimacy to China’s claims over the disputed regions.
“Second, having administrative units can justify the presence of military and defense installations for protection purposes,” Bhatt told Radio Free Asia. “Furthermore the establishment of these cities increases the area of operation over the vast maritime domain in the South China Sea.”
The U.S. State Department raised warnings on April 6 about the PLA Navy’s actions to sink a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea. In their statement, the State Department also raised concern about efforts by the Chinese government to land on and inhabit some of the disputed islands, such as Fiery Cross. The State Department also accused China of exploiting global distraction and vulnerabilities from the coronavirus pandemic to bolster its claims over the region.
“We call on the [People’s Republic of China] to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea,” the U.S. State Department statement concludes.