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The US Navy says the USS Montgomery was asserting “navigational rights” in the Spratlys. Photo: AFP

Beijing accuses US of ‘deliberate provocations’ in South China Sea as warship passes Spratly Islands

  • PLA Southern Theatre Command spokesman says USS Montgomery harboured ‘evil intentions’ on Lunar New Year voyage into contested waters
  • US 7th Fleet says warship challenged restrictions imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan
The Chinese military lashed out at the United States for “deliberate provocations” during the Lunar New Year holiday after a US warship passed by the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Saturday.

The statement followed a series of incidents in which Southeast Asian nations have made clear their contesting claims to islands in those waters.

China sent air and sea patrols to “track, monitor, verify and identify” the USS Montgomery when it sailed through the Spratlys, according to Senior Colonel Li Huamin, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Southern Theatre Command, on Tuesday.

“The US ship made deliberate provocations, harbouring evil intentions, during China’s traditional new year festival, in a naked act of navigational hegemony,” Li said.

Li said China claimed “indisputable” sovereignty over the South China Sea and its islands, and no matter what “tricks and provocations” the US made, they were a waste of effort.

The Spratlys are located west of the Philippine island principality of Palawan and subject to conflicting claims involving the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

Li said Southern Theatre Command would “maintain high alert, and take all the necessary measures” to protect China’s sovereignty in response to the Montgomery’s presence.

China likely to step up South China Sea soft power play

The US Navy “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law” in its “freedom of navigation” operation, a spokesman told The Japan Times on Tuesday.

The voyage “challenged the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan”, 7th Fleet spokesman Lieutenant Joe Keiley said.

China’s neighbours, in particular Vietnam, have challenged Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea and have worked with the US to counter Chinese military actions, which include building on and militarising islets.

In November, Vietnam’s armed forces released a white paper which said Hanoi would “consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries”.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper (left) and Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich during Esper’s visit to Vietnam in November. Photo: AP

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper recently visited Vietnam, where he denounced China for “intimidating” smaller Asian nations.

“We will not accept attempts to assert unlawful maritime claims at the expense of law-abiding nations,” Esper said.

This month, Indonesia send warplanes and ships to patrol the contested Natuna islands, about 700 kilometres (435 miles) to the east, after Chinese coastguard vessels were reported there.

At the same time, Beijing was expected to step up port calls to Southeast Asian nations in an effort to build relations and press its claims in disputed waters. A Chinese coastguard vessel made a “friendly visit” to Manila this month.

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