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China claims it ‘warned off’ US warship in its waters; US Navy says blatantly ‘false’

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) conducts routine operations in Taiwan Strait on May 18, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Zenaida Roth)
May 20, 2021

The Chinese military claimed U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur “trespassed” into Chinese waters near the Paracel Islands and was “warned off” by Chinese ships. The U.S. Navy responded, firmly rejecting China’s “expelling” claims, which China has made repeatedly over the years without proof.

Spokesperson for the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, PLA Air Force Senior Col. Tian Junli, said USS Curtis Wilbur “trespassed into China’s territorial waters of Xisha Islands [also known as Paracel Islands] on May 20 without Chinese government’s permission” and PLA naval and air forces “warned off the US destroyer.”

“The Xisha Islands are China’s inherent territory. The behavior of the US military is its old trick of ‘hybrid manipulation’ — to practice navigation hegemony and at the meantime, mislead public opinion,” Tian said.

The U.S. Navy responded in a statement, saying, “The PLA’s statement about this mission is false. USS Curtis Wilbur was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory.”

“USS Curtis Wilbur conducted this [freedom of navigation operation] in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters. The operation reflects our commitment to upholding freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle. The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Curtis Wilbur did here,” the U.S. Navy said.

“The PLA’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and asserts its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense in the Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea. The PRC’s behavior stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms,” the U.S. Navy added.

The Paracel Islands, also known as the Xisha Islands, are claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. All three nations demand prior notice before any military vessel can pass through the territory, even for innocent reasons. However, their demands are not in accordance with international law, the U.S. Navy said.

China alleged the US Navy warship’s presence was “increased regional security risks of its own makings, could easily trigger misunderstandings, miscalculations and accidents at sea,” and violated international law and basic international norms.

The U.S. Navy explained that that international law does not allow any single nation to draw straight baselines around the Paracel Islands as China has done.

“With these baselines, China has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law. By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea, and that China’s claimed straight baselines around the Paracel Islands are inconsistent with international law,” the U.S. Navy explained.

“This freedom of navigation operation (‘FONOP’) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to strait baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” the U.S. Navy said.

The U.S. Navy asserted that U.S. forces are present in the South China Sea “on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century” and operate within the parameters of international law.

It vowed to continue to “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows – regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events.”