US destroyer sails near disputed South China Sea islands, China says it ‘drove’ ship away

A US destroyer sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Wednesday, drawing an angry reaction from Beijing, which said its military had “driven away” the ship after it illegally entering territorial waters.

The United States regularly carries out what it calls Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea challenging what it says are restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China and other claimants.

The US Navy said the USS Benfold “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law.”

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.”

China says it does not impede freedom of navigation or overflight, accusing the United States of deliberately provoking tensions.

The People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command said the US ship’s actions seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security by illegally entering China’s territorial waters around the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

“The PLA’s Southern Theater Command organized sea and air forces to follow, monitor, warn and drive away” the ship, it added, showing pictures of the Benfold taken from the deck of the Chinese frigate the Xianning.

“The facts once again show that the United States is nothing short of a ‘security risk maker in the South China Sea’ and a ‘destroyer of regional peace and stability.’”

China seized control of the Paracel Islands from the then-South Vietnamese government in 1974.

Monday marked the sixth anniversary of a ruling by an international tribunal that invalidated China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea, a conduit for about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade each year.

China has never accepted the ruling.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have competing and often overlapping claims.

China has built artificial islands on some of its South China Sea holdings, including airports, raising regional concerns about Beijing’s intentions.

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