On Monday, the U.S. Navy denied a claim made earlier in the day by China that Chinese air and naval forces drove off a U.S. warship sailing through the South China Sea.
Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Snr. Col. Tian Junli, a spokesperson for the Chinese PLA Southern Theater Command, said the U.S. Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) and that Chinese forces monitored the U.S. warship. ABC News also reported PLA officials claimed on their social media account that they “warned them and drove them away.”
The U.S. Pacific Fleet initially described the USS Benfold’s transit, near the disputed Paracel Islands, as part of a routine freedom of navigation operation (FONOP). The U.S. 7th Fleet, a subcomponent of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, later responded to deny China’s claims its forces “drove them away.”
“The PRC’s statement about this mission is false,” the U.S. 7th Fleet said in an updated statement. “USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters. The operation reflects our commitment to uphold 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 Benfold did here. Nothing PRC says otherwise will deter us.”
China has previously claimed, based on little or no evidence, that its forces have expelled U.S. warships operating in the South China Sea near territory it has claimed as its own. A similar incident in May saw Chinese military officials claim they “warned off” the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) near the Paracel Islands. In a statement shared by the main press office for the U.S. Navy, the 7th Fleet said “The PLA’s statement about this mission is false” and added, “USS Curtis Wilbur was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory.”
7th Fleet warships have conducted FONOPs through the South China Sea on a nearly monthly basis for several months in a row now.
The U.S. Navy has said its FONOPS are meant to challenge “unlawful restrictions” on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam as well as China’s claim to strait baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands.
While several countries have raised territorial claims throughout the South China Sea, China has face accusations by the U.S. of militarizing the sea region, despite prior assurances they would not.
China’s most recent claim to have chased the USS Benfold away from its territory comes on the five-year anniversary of an international court decision rejecting those same Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the July 2016 Hague decision denying China’s territorial claims on the Paracel Islands.
Blinken said, “We call on the PRC to abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small.”