Tensions are running high in the region as the United States pushes back against Beijing’s growing assertive posture in the waters it claims as part of its territorial claims. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway that transits trillions of dollars in trade each year and holds valuable resources, including fish stocks and undersea minerals.
The U.S. Navy regularly sends its warships to what Beijing regards as its territorial waters. Still, Washington calls them freedom of navigation operations that uphold rights and freedoms guaranteed under international law. The United States has deployed Navy and Air Force assets to patrol the waters for decades and says freedom of navigation is in its national interest.
A US destroyer in July 2021 was accused of entering what China considered its waters near the Paracel Islands, a disputed group of islands also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. At the time, the United States Indo-Pacific Command said China’s statement was “false” and that the U.S. ship was conducting a freedom of navigation operation in line with international law.
According to a statement from China’s Southern Theater Command, the Chinese military retaliated by tracking the U.S. ship and “warning it to leave” the waters claimed by Beijing.
“The theater forces will maintain a high state of alert at all times and take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security and peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Tian Junli, a spokesman for China’s Southern Theatre Command, told reporters.
This is the latest tension in a maritime dispute that has pitted China against several Southeast Asian countries, all of which have overlapping claims in the South China Sea. Those include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The military retaliated by tracking the American ship and “warning it to leave” the waters claimed by Beijing, according to A.P.
Another U.S. Navy ship was accused of entering what China considered its waters around the same islands in July 2021, a month after NBC News reported that a Chinese fighter jet flew alongside 500 feet of a U.S. patrol plane for over an hour, a violation of international law that Washington called “false.”
In response to Thursday’s incident, the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet denied China’s claim and said the USS Milius was performing routine operations in the waters and had not been expelled from them. In a statement, Lt. j.g. Luka Bakic said, “The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
China’s claims of territorial ownership in the waters have riled countries in the region, which want to protect their fishing rights and undersea oil and gas resources from Chinese advances in the waterway. The United States has repeatedly criticized China’s actions in the area and has been shoring up alliances with countries in the Asia-Pacific to counter its assertive posture.