A US warship has sailed near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands in the disputed South China Sea in a freedom of navigation operation, the US Navy said, the first such mission under President Joe Biden’s new administration.
China’s military condemned the move, saying it had dispatched naval and air units to follow and warn away the ship.
The busy waterway is one of a number of flashpoints in the US-China relationship, which include a trade war, US sanctions, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, an assertion that the International Tribunal at The Hague declared as without merit.
China has been infuriated by repeated US expeditions near the islands that Beijing occupies and controls in the South China Sea.
China has said it has irrefutable sovereignty and has accused Washington of deliberately stoking tensions.
‘Freedom of navigation’
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet said the destroyer USS John S McCain “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law”.
It said that the freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging the “unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam”.
The Southern Theatre Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army said the ship had entered into what it termed the territorial waters of the Paracels without permission, “seriously infringing upon China’s sovereignty and security”.
It added that the US was “deliberately disrupting the good atmosphere of the South China Sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation”.
China took full control of the Paracels in 1974 after a short battle with South Vietnamese forces. Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, has continued to claim the islands.
Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have claims to other parts of the South China Sea, where China has been building artificial islands and constructing air bases on some of them.
The same US ship involved in this mission earlier this week transited the sensitive Taiwan Strait, drawing an angry response from Beijing.
Last month, a US aircraft carrier strike group entered the South China Sea for what the Navy said were routine operations.