BEIJING — China on Thursday issued its second protest in as many days over United States naval activity in the region, drawing an unusually sharp response from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, which accused Beijing of attempting to assert illegitimate maritime rights at the expense of its neighbors.
A statement from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command said the guided-missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur “illegally” intruded into its territorial waters surrounding the Paracel island group in the South China Sea on Thursday. It said Chinese forces mobilized to track and monitor the ship and “warned and expelled it.”
The Paracels are also claimed by Vietnam.
China accused the U.S. of increasing regional security risks, “misunderstandings, misjudgments, and accidents at sea.” It called the ship’s maneuvers “unprofessional and irresponsible,” saying Chinese forces were determined to defend the country’s sovereign claims while maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.
The U.S. refuses to recognize China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and regularly conducts what it calls freedom of navigation operations to assert its right to sail in international waters.
In its lengthy response, the 7th Fleet said the operation “upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage.”
“The PLA’s statement about this mission is false. USS Curtis Wilbur was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory,” the statement said. “USS Curtis Wilbur conducted this FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters.”
It said that China’s statement asserts its “excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of the Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”
China on Wednesday issued a complaint over the Wilbur’s passage through the Taiwan Strait, also calling it a provocation that undermined peace and stability in the region.
While the strait is in international waters, China claims self-governing Taiwan as its own territory and regards the U.S. Navy’s presence near the island as providing support for its independence-leaning democratically elected government.
Along with building the world’s largest navy and coast guard by numbers of vessels, China has fortified its island holdings in the strategically vital South China Sea and created new island outposts by piling sand cement on coral reefs and topping them with airstrips and other infrastructure.
It has ignored rival territorial claims by its smaller neighbors, including the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as an international arbitral ruling that declared most of China’s claims in the South China Sea invalid.
An emboldened China faced with the scaling up of U.S. military operations in the area has increasingly raised concerns about a possible clash or confrontation, whether intended or not.