In the latest indication of the state of ongoing tension between Washington and Beijing, the United States Navy effectively launched an attack on the validity of new maritime regulations issued by China by sending one of its destroyers sailing through the South China Sea, as the Washington Examiner reports.
According to a statement issued by the Navy’s 7th Fleet, the USS Benfold was sent on a journey in the area of the Spratly Islands and was done so in a manner “consistent with international law,” despite the fact that China would almost certainly contend that the operation constituted a violation of that country’s new maritime rules.
As Newsweek noted last month, China recently began demanding that foreign vessels report all cargo as well as their call signs prior to venturing into its “territorial sea,” an area Beijing uses to describe the waters around the islands it claims in the South China Sea and parts beyond.
The outlet added that some observers believe the new regulations could lead to additional efforts by China to control all military and civilian traffic in the vicinity of its claimed territories, even extending to Taiwan.
China’s new rules cover nuclear vessels, submersibles, vessels transporting “toxic and harmful substances, and ships that carry radioactive material,” as well as “other vessels that may endanger maritime traffic safety,” broad terminology that could presumably be used to encompass unwelcome foreign military ships.
Taking a strong stance in support of the appropriateness of the Navy’s movement through the area, the 7th Fleet’s statement declared, “This freedom of navigation operation [FONOP] upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea. USS Benfold demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law,” the Examiner noted.
The Chinese government, unsurprisingly, took the opposite opinion of the legality of the ship’s movement, saying that it was in clear violation of the new rules and asserting that “On September 8th, the USS Benfold guided missile destroyer illegally broke into the waters adjacent to the Mischief Reef of Nansha islands without the approval of the Chinese Government,” and “violated China’s sovereignty and security.”
Nevertheless, in the opinion of Captain Joseph Gradisher, a retired Navy sailor now working in a civilian operations role, “It is widely known that the U.S. Navy conducts freedom of transit operations around the world in accordance with international laws…and the Navy will continue to do that,” making it clear that China’s protestations will likely have little impact on such decisions in the future.
Gradisher concluded by telling the Examiner in no uncertain terms that “Protestations from folks who think we may not have followed those rules, it is something we take note of, but I’m very confident that the folks out in 7th Fleet do these types of operations by the letter.”