US Navy sails warship into disputed South China Sea, enraging Beijing

US Navy enrages China by sailing warship into disputed waters in the South China Sea before defying Beijing’s threat to ‘expel’ it

  • USS Curtis Wilbur sailed past the Paracel Islands, South China Sea, today
  • Beijing says the warship ‘illegally’ entered its waters and was ‘expelled’ 
  • But US Navy hit back – saying the ship was not ‘expelled’, that the waters do not belong to China, and that Beijing is making ‘illegal’ claims on the territory
  • Comes just a day after the same warship sailed through the Strait of Taiwan 

The US and China have engaged in a war of words over the South China Sea after an American warship sailed close to a disputed set of islands. 

The row was sparked after the USS Curtis Wilbur, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, sailed past the Paracel Islands on Thursday. 

China accused the warship of ‘illegally’ entering its territory and said the vessel was ‘expelled’ by its naval and air forces.

But the Navy’s 7th Fleet hit back, saying the ship was not ‘expelled’ and that China does not control those waters – which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

The USS Curtis Wilbur sailed close to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea today, kicking off a war of words between Beijing and Washington (file image)

China claims exclusive rights over almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic body of water through which trillons of dollars of global shipping pass each year.

However, the US – backed by an independent ruling from a UN-backed tribunal – disputes this, and says the waters are international.

To hammer home the point, the US conducts what it calls ‘freedom of navigation operations’ in the sea by sailing through waters claimed by China, but which should remain open to all vessels based on UN charters.

Such operations enrage Beijing, which called Thursday’s incursion ‘unprofessional and irresponsible,’ saying it increases the risk of ‘misunderstandings, misjudgments, and accidents at sea.’

‘It severely violated China’s sovereignty and security and severely undermined the peace and stability of the South China Sea,’ a spokesman added.

But the US called this statement ‘false’, adding: ‘USS Curtis Wilbur was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory. 

‘[It] conducted this freedom of navigation operation in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters.

‘[China’s] statement is the latest in a long string of actions to misrepresent lawful US maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense [its] neighbors in the South China Sea.’

Thursday’s mission came just a day after the same ship sailed through the Strait of Taiwan, another routine US exercise that angers Beijing.

‘The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,’ the US Navy said at the time.

‘The United States military will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.’

A spokesman for China’s Eastern Theatre Command expressed strong opposition and condemned the move, which comes amid heightened tensions between the two powers.

‘The U.S. actions sends the wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces, deliberately disrupting the regional situation and endangering peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,’ he said.

Chinese forces tracked and monitored the ship throughout its voyage, he added.

China believes Taiwan’s democratically elected government is bent on a formal declaration of independence for the island, a red line for Beijing.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen says they are already an independent state called the Republic of China, its formal name.

Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said the U.S. ship had sailed in a southerly direction through the strait and the ‘situation was as normal’.

The U.S. Navy has been conducting such operations every month or so.

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is its most important international backer and a major seller of arms.

Military tension between Taiwan and Beijing have spiked over the past year, with Taipei complaining of China repeatedly sending its air force into Taiwan’s air defence zone.

Some of those activities can involve multiple fighters and bombers.

China has said its activities around Taiwan are aimed at protecting China’s sovereignty. Taiwan’s government has denounced it as attempts at intimidation.

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