A US warship sailed through the South China Sea on Thursday, sparking a warning from China’s military as tensions between the superpowers remain high.
The American navy said the USS Benfold “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law”.
The Southern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army said the US ship had “illegally” entered what Beijing regards as its waters.
The PLA “organised naval and air forces to engage in tracking and monitoring as well as to warn and drive (the destroyer) away,” its statement added.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing has ignored a 2016 ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that its historical claim is without basis.
Led by the US, multiple Western navies conduct “freedom of navigation operations”, known in military circles as FONOPs, to assert the idea that the South China Sea is an international waterway.
Thursday’s passage by the USS Benfold was the first declared FONOP of the year.
It came a week after the US laid out its most detailed case yet against Beijing’s “unlawful” claims in the South China Sea, rejecting both the geographic and historical justifications.
In a 47-page research paper, the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs said China had no basis under international law for claims that have put Beijing on a collision course with the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.
China has rejected the report.
Over the years Beijing has steadily cemented its control of key islands and atolls in the South China Sea through land reclamation and the construction of military facilities that have alarmed many of its neighbours.