CHINA’S Defense Ministry says it will increase its “combat readiness” on Sunday after two US navy warships entered the disputed waters of the South China Sea on a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP).
The ministry said the Chinese military issued warnings to guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam and the USS Higgins to leave the waters after they “arbitrarily entered” the contested Paracel Islands in the waterway “without permission of the Chinese government”.
In a statement, ministry spokesman Wu Qian said Chinese navy vessels were deployed “to conduct legal identification and verification of the US warships and warn them off.”
“The US has seriously violated China’s sovereignty, undermined strategic mutual trust, and undermined peace and security in the South China Sea,” Wu said, as quoted by the Japan Times.
The US did not confirm whether or not the operations took place.
“US forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said.
“All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
Several US officials who declined to be named said the two US warships came within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, maneuvering near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the operations.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
While this operation had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it comes at a particularly sensitive time and just days after the Pentagon uninvited China from a major US-hosted naval drill.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about US$3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the area.
Last week, Chinese bombers landed on islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines, prompting Manila to take “appropriate diplomatic action” on the matter.
China has built seven artificial islands in the Spratlys group in the South China Sea and turned them into military outposts with airfields, radars, and missile defences.
Beijing says its military facilities in the Spratlys are purely defensive and that it can do what it likes on its own territory.