US sends guided-missile cruiser to South China Sea to challenge ‘excessive’ Chinese claims
- USS Chancellorsville was confirmed as having conducted a ‘freedom of navigation’ exercise on Monday
- Operation highlights ongoing tensions in the disputed waters in lead-up to Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump’s meeting at G20 summit
The US Navy confirmed on Thursday that it conducted a “freedom of navigation” operation by sending a guided-missile cruiser, USS Chancellorsville, near the contested Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Monday.
“USS Chancellorsville sailed near the Paracel Islands to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” US Pacific Fleet spokesman Nathan Christensen said in a statement.
The US warship conducted the operation near the islands – known in China as the Xisha Islands – to challenge claims made by China, Christensen added.
The Chancellorsville was shadowed by a Chinese vessel during the operation but all interactions were deemed safe and professional, two anonymous US officials were quoted by CNN as saying, adding that China later issued a formal diplomatic protest about the cruiser’s operation.
“We urge the US to strengthen the management of its vessels and aircraft that pass by Chinese territory to prevent unexpected events,” People’s Liberation Army Southern Theatre spokesman Li Huamin said in a statement.
The United States’ latest such operation in the South China Sea comes weeks after US and Chinese warships nearly collided with each other in the disputed waters on September 30, raising grave concerns of a potential military mishap between the two militaries.
It also further raised tensions days ahead of the upcoming meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump at the G20 leaders’ summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The two presidents are expected to discuss a ceasefire to their countries’ prolonged tit-for-tat trade war.
David Shear, a former assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that the South China Sea would also be high on the agenda for the Xi-Trump meeting.
“The US side’s conduction of freedom of navigation operations is not because we want to be aggressive,” Shear said. “It’s because we feel we need to emphasise the need for freedom of navigation and to challenge what we believe to be unlawful claims of sovereignty.”
China’s activities in the South China Sea served several objectives, Shear said, including “demonstrating administrative control, intimidating their neighbours, strengthening what they believe to be the public basis for their claim, and sovereign territorial defence”.
While it claims sovereignty over the South China Sea, China is in talks with surrounding countries over a code of conduct for the disputed maritime region.
It has long been opposed to US military aircraft and warships sailing near or flying over the disputed islands.
In late September, when an American destroyer, the Decatur, sailed near an islet claimed by Beijing in the Spratly archipelago, known in China as the Nansha Islands, a Chinese ship came within 41 metres (135 feet) of it, risking a collision with the US vessel.
The US accused the People’s Liberation Army Navy of conducting an aggressively “unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre”.
Soon afterwards, US Vice-President Mike Pence accused Beijing of “reckless harassment” of the US Navy and vowed that his country’s naval forces would “continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and our national interests demand”.
“We will not be intimidated,” he said. “We will not stand down.”
Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command also accused China on Thursday of “ignoring international law” and “other legitimate claims of smaller countries” on the rim of the South China Sea.
“We were talking about the security and the right of all nations to trade, to communicate, to send their financial information and communications through cables under the sea, to send their goods and services across the sea and fly above,” Davidson told an event organised by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Additional reporting by AFP