Beijing hits out as US sends warship past two disputed reefs in South China Sea for the first time



China condemned a US naval patrol near disputed reefs in the South China Sea and called on Washington to stop infringing upon its sovereignty.

On Wednesday, the guided missile destroyer USS Wayne E Meyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross and Mischief reefs, China’s two biggest artificial islands in the disputed Spratlys. Other US vessels were nearby.

It was the first time an American warship had challenged two Chinese military outposts at once in a “freedom of navigation” operation.

On Thursday, Senior Colonel Li Huamin, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theatre Command, accused the United States of “acting as a hegemon in ignorance of the international laws and rules” and urged Washington to stop its “provocative actions” to avoid an “unpredictable incident”.

He said the PLA Navy and Air Force shadowed, identified, monitored, warned and expelled the destroyer.
“Our troops will [take] all necessary measures to resolutely defend national sovereignty and security and firmly safeguard the peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Li said.

Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for US 7th Fleet, said its forces operated in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including the South China Sea.

“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate whatever international law allows,” she said.

China lays claim to most of the South China Sea, an area rich in resources and through which trillions of dollars in trade passes each year. It has occupied the Paracel Islands, built up seven islands in the Spratlys, and assigned significant military forces to them.

The US Navy has sent ships into waters around the Chinese-controlled islands and reefs almost on a monthly basis since the end of last year “to challenge excessive maritime claims”.

Chinese and US warships regularly have encounters in the South China Sea, where Beijing also has territorial disputes with its neighbours.

The latest patrol comes amid rising trade and geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington.

It also follows China’s rejection of a request by a US naval vessel to make a port call at Qingdao in eastern Shandong province. Earlier in the month, Beijing also rejected a port call request for two US warships to visit Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the European Union has called on all parties in the South China Sea to exercise self-restraint.

“Unilateral actions during the past weeks in the South China Sea have resulted in mounting tensions and a deterioration of the maritime security environment which represents a serious threat to the peaceful economic development of the region,” the bloc said on Wednesday.

“The EU is committed to the legal order for the seas and oceans based upon international law, maritime security and cooperation, as well as the freedom of navigation and overflight, in the interest of all states.”