China lashes out after US warship challenges Beijing over South China Sea claim

Chinese military ‘live-fire exercise’ in South China Sea in May

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The US Navy said it conducted a routine freedom of navigation exercise in the contested waterways on Wednesday – but Beijing hit back and claimed the voyage broke international law. The USS Benfold guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Mischief Reef – a low-tide elevation located in the Spratly Islands and claimed by China.

The 7th fleet insist the mission was conducted in “accordance with international law”, but Chinese government spokesman Tian Junli claimed the vessel “unlawfully entered the waters off Meiji Jiao without permission from the Chinese government”.

Mr Tian said the destroyer was “followed, monitored, warned and expelled” by Chinese naval and air force.

He accused the US of “violating China’s sovereignty and security,” and “creating risks” in the region.

The US Navy dismissed the version of events of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and has refused to back down to the pressure exerted by Beijing.

In a statement, the fleet said: “USS Benfold 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 uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle.

“The US will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here.

“Nothing PRC says otherwise will deter us.”

The US Navy said it is the second time this year the vessel has sailed in the region – with the first taking place in July.

China has increased its control of the South China Sea in recent years and has placed military outposts on a number of Paracel Islands.

In its report, the 7th fleet noted that despite the changes, the Reef cannot be a territorial sea as it is submerged at high tide.

The 7th Fleet said: “The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterisation under international law.

“By engaging in normal operations within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, the United States demonstrated that vessels may lawfully exercise high-seas freedoms in those areas.”

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled the Mischief Reef fell within the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines – an outcome rejected by China.

Last month, US Vice-President Kamala Harris embarked on her first tour of south Asia since entering the White House and fired a stern warning to Beijing.

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Ms Harris reiterated the US would maintain its “strong presence in the South China Sea”

Beijing claims vast areas of the South China Sea up to the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Under international law, a large part of the territory comes under Vietnamese rule, but China argues it has historical sovereignty over most of the waterway.

The South China Sea is also a crucial strategic area, and a 2015 US Department of Defence report found an estimated £4trillion ($5.3trillion) worth of goods are shuttled through the shipping lane each year.
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