China says it chased a US warship out of its territorial waters on Thursday, near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
The Southern Theatre Command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) accused the USS Benfold of "illegally" sailing into its waters without permission, resulting in PLA naval and air forces tracking the ship and warning it away. A US Navy statement pushed back on the claim, saying that China's expanding assertions of sovereignty around the islands "pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas."
These same islands in the South China Sea have seen the Chinese military establish island fortifications, meant to expand Beijing's territorial reach. This week the US Navy has appeared to test these claims of Chinese sovereignty over the region.
Beijing has further sought to impose new maritime identification rules within the past months, aimed at shoring up its claims, as CNN previously described:
Beijing wants foreign vessels to give notice before entering "Chinese territorial waters," providing maritime authorities with detailed information -- including the ship's name, call sign, current position, next port of call and estimated time of arrival.
It may sound like a reasonable enough request, especially if the ship is carrying hazardous goods, that is until you consider what constitutes "Chinese territorial waters."
It's the second such incident between the Benfold and PLA navy in the last six months. But this instance has further involved China seeking to enforce its new identification laws.
The PLA's interpretation of events was as follows:
Senior Col.Tian Junli, spokesperson of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, said in a statement released on the microsite Weibo that "the actions of the U.S. side have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security."
The latest event "is another cast-iron proof that it (the United States) is pursuing navigational hegemony and militarizing the South China Sea," the statement read.
"The PLA Southern Theater organized naval and air forces to track and monitor and warned them to leave," it added.
"We solemnly demand that the U.S. side immediately stop such provocative actions, otherwise it will bear the serious consequences of unforeseen events," the PLA added in its statement.
The US Navy 7th Fleet vehemently rejected Beijing's assertions, calling them "false".
"USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law," the US side said. "The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle." The US Navy added that its 'freedom of navigation' exercises will continue: "Nothing PRC (People’s Republic of China) says otherwise will deter us."