South China Sea: Beijing lashes out at Trump after US sends warship past disputed reefs

The country has called upon Washington to pull back and stop infringing upon its sovereignty after the unprecedented action. China is disputing the missile destroyer USS Wayne E Meyer’s presence within 12 nautical miles of two reefs it has laid claim to. Fiery Cross and Mischief reefs are the two biggest artificial islands in the disputed Spratlys.

This was the first time a US warship had challenged Chinese outposts at the same time.

Spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theatre Command, Colonel Li Huamin, accused the US of “acting as a hegemony in ignorance of the international laws and rules”.

He urged the Trump administration to stop “provocative actions”, saying it would otherwise result in an “unpredictable incident”.

He added: “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.”

Colonel Huamin said the PLA Navy and Air Force had identified the destroyer, sent warning, and then expelled it.

But the US have maintained their presence in the region is fair and without excessive force.

Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for the US 7th Fleet, told journalists its forces were in the Indo-Pacific region daily.

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

Countries have disputed over territory in the South China Sea for many years, with tensions slowly rising in the region.

China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have all attempted to stake claim on the territory.

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The argument centres around an estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the sea.

China has maintained an argument that foreign militaries should not conduct intelligence-gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its exclusive economic zone.

But according to the US, under the UN Convention of the Law of Seas, claimant countries should have freedom of navigation through the region.

As a result, the US has recently stepped up military activity and its naval presence in the region.

During a visit to Asia in November 2017, President Trump emphasised his belief in the importance of freedom of navigation operations.

He stated this would ensure free and open access to the region.

The US Navy has therefore sent a number of ships into the waters and reefs almost monthly in an attempt to “challenge excessive maritime claims”.

Almost $5trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the South China Sea every year.

In 2019, freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US in the region hit an all time high.

One expert described this as a warning to Bejing.

Collin Koh, a research fellow in S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore said: “Clearly, under the Trump administration, we see a more concrete drive towards Freedom of Navigation Operations Programmes in the South China Sea.

“The operations do have an effect of emphasising the rule of law, deterring Beijing from more drastic aggression beyond militarisation and coercion – such as outright attacking other claimants’ garrisons and annexing those rival features – as well as generally demonstrating the US security commitment to the region, to show to the smaller and weaker regional states that it still cares.”

China has previously accused the US of “deliberate provocations” over the South China Sea.

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