US Destroyer Re-Enters Paracel Waters, Shows Support to Freedom of Navigation

New U.S.-China friction broke out after a U.S. warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait on May 18 and entered the disputed waters of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on May 20, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) condemning the move, and the United States claiming innocent passage.

The regime called the transit “an illegal intrusion,” while the United States accused China of violating international law and expressed its commitment to safeguarding maritime rights and freedoms.

It is the latest in a series of disagreements in the region. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims the Paracel Islands as its territory, calling it the Xisha Islands. They are also claimed by Vietnam and the Republic of China (ROC).

On May 20, the CCP’s spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, Tian Junli, said in a statement that the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) “illegally intruded” in the Paracel Islands without permission from the CCP regime. He said the Chinese military forces tracked, warned, and expelled the destroyer from the waters. The statement said the American warship “seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and security and damaged regional peace and stability.”

The same day, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, demanded the U.S. Navy “stop provocations.”

However, the U.S. Seventh Fleet issued a statement directly refuting the narratives of the CCP regime on May 20.

It said the PLA’s statement regarding this mission was false and that the USS Curtis Wilbur had not been “expelled” from any nation’s territory. It noted that USS Curtis Wilbur conducted this freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) pursuant to international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters, according to U.S. Naval Institute News.

The statement revealed that the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Curtis Wilbur performed this operation in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands without notifying relevant countries in advance, a move to challenge China-claimed straight baselines.

“Straight baselines cannot be lawfully drawn in the Paracels under the international law of the sea as reflected in Article 7 of the Law of Sea Convention,” the statement said. “With these baselines, China has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law.”

It also said, “The PLA’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and asserts its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense [of] the Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”

Currently, the South China Sea has turned into one of the most intense flashpoints between the United States and China. And the United States has refused to recognize China’s territorial claims regarding the disputed South China Sea.

For years, U.S. warships have repeatedly transited through the Taiwan Strait and carried out FONOP in the South China Sea.

Since the Biden administration took office on Jan. 20, a number of FONOPs have taken place in the South China Sea, including the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56, Feb. 4 and April 7), USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54, Feb. 24, and May 18), and USS John Finn (DDG-113, March 10).

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