Another US Navy destroyer challenged China in the South China Sea by sailing past contested islands without asking permission
- The US Navy sent a destroyer to challenge “unlawful” restrictions by China and others in the South China Sea.
- The destroyer USS Russell sailed through the contested Spratly Islands without asking permission.
- This is the second such operation in less than two weeks, suggesting these operations will continue being routine under the Biden administration.
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The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Russell sailed through the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Wednesday, challenging China’s demands that foreign military vessels ask for permission before sailing through the area, the Navy said.
The Spratly Islands are contested territories in the South China Sea. China, which claims almost all of the 1.3 million-square-mile waterway, has built up its military presence in this area, constructing fortified outposts on artificial reefs.
The Spratlys are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, some of which put restrictions on the operations of foreign military vessels, as China does.
The US Navy characterizes “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea” as a “serious threat to freedom of the sea.”
The latest freedom-of-navigation operation “upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan,” the Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement.
“China, Vietnam, and Taiwan require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through the territorial sea,” the Navy said. “By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions.”
The operation on Wednesday followed a similar one conducted less than two weeks ago by the destroyer USS John McCain. The warship carried out a freedom-of-navigation operation in the Paracel Islands, contested territory where China also has a growing military presence.
The Chinese Defense Ministry expressed frustration with the operation and said naval and air assets were deployed to drive away the US destroyer. China considers such operations to be violations of sovereignty.
As it has before, the Navy said in its latest statement that “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” Freedom-of-navigation operations have become fairly routine for the service despite pushback from China.
In addition to the freedom-of-navigation operations, the US Navy sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait and had two carrier strike groups operating together in the South China Sea in recent weeks, sparking complaints from Beijing.
The Trump administration dramatically stepped up competition with China, and there are expectations that this will continue under the new Biden administration.
President Joe Biden has described China as the “most serious competitor” and said the US is in “extreme competition” with China.
Biden recently announced the establishment of the “China Task Force” at the Department of Defense, which says the aim is “countering Chinese efforts” to “overturn the current rules-based structure” and use “all elements of national power to bend the nations to its will.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has called China the “pacing threat” for the US, and a planned force posture review is expected to focus heavily on the US position in the Indo-Pacific region.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby recently stressed how seriously the secretary takes the “pacing challenge that China poses,” telling reporters that it’s important to take a “fresh look as we come in at what is in the Pacific.”
“What is the footprint both fixed and rotational, and what’s the health of our alliances and partnerships there? In other words, from our perspective are we doing enough?”