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Risk of South China Sea conflict could rise after US destroyer sails near disputed islands under Chinese control, experts say

A US navy destroyer sailing near islands claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea drew a warning from Chinese warships to leave the area.

The US action was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, US officials said.

The Chinese Defence Ministry has called the move “illegal” and “provocative,” saying that two Chinese warships had warned the US destroyer to leave.  

The guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur challenged “excessive maritime claims” near the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbours, the US officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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Hua Chunying, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said the US move had “severely violated China’s sovereignty and security interests” and it was “an extremely irresponsible provocative act”.

Hua said: “The US intentionally created and exaggerated tensions. Beijing will continue to closely watch the maritime and air situation and will take all measures that are necessary to defend China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests.”

In a separate statement, Wu Qian, the spokesman for China’s Defence Ministry, described the US move as “intentional provocation”.

Wu said: “This has proved that the US side is the troublemaker in the stability of the South China Sea. China will work together with other nations in the area to firmly defend the peace and stability in the South China Sea region.

“We strongly urge that the US side respects China’s sovereignty and interest concerns, and never repeat its mistakes again. The Chinese military will strengthen its sea and air patrols as needed … to firmly defend theê nation’s sovereignty and safety.”

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The latest US patrol is expected to anger Beijing and could further escalate tensions over the South China Sea. The destroyer sailed within waters claimed by China, close to but not within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits of the islands, the officials said.

The Pentagon said the Decatur “conducted this transit in a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident.” One official said the ship, which sailed near Triton and Woody Islands, was shadowed by three Chinese vessels and that all interactions were safe.

“This operation demonstrated that coastal states may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a news briefing.

It was the fourth challenge that the United States has made to what it considers overreaching maritime claims by China in the South China Sea in the past year, and the first since May.

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China, Washington’s main strategic rival in Asia, claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year. The United States has criticised Beijing’s build-up of military facilities in the sea and expressed concerns they could be used to restrict free movement.

China’s Defence Ministry said it had declared its “baseline” for the Paracel Islands in 1996, something the United States knew. Despite that, the Chinese government said, the United States had sent a ship into Chinese “territorial waters.”

A statement from China’s Foreign Ministry said the US ship did not ask for permission to enter Chinese territorial waters, and had broken both Chinese and international law.

The ministry accused the United States of deliberately creating tensions.

China has a runway on Woody Island, the site of the largest Chinese presence on the Paracels, and has placed surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles there, according to US officials and military analysts. Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the Paracels.

In the last three US freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea within the last year, US warships cruised within 12 nautical miles of islands claimed by Beijing. The actions drew angry responses from China, which has accused the United States of stirring up trouble there.

The latest operation comes just after the volatile president of the Philippines announced, during a visit to China, his “separation” from Washington and realignment with Beijing. The Philippines has been a key ally of the United States and a territorial rival of Beijing in the South China Sea. Rodrigo Duterte took office as Philippine president in June.

Duterte’s announcement on Thursday was a significant turnaround after a tribunal in The Hague ruled that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous Philippine administration and strongly backed by the United States.

But in Washington a person close to the matter said the latest naval operation was not timed for Duterte’s China visit this week and that planning for the patrol had long been in the works.

US officials have said they will continue such operations despite objections by Beijing.

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“The US Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all. This will not change,” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said during a trip to China in July.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims in the South China Sea, but Beijing’s is the largest. It argues it can do what it wants on the islands it claims as they have been Chinese since ancient times.

The last US freedom-of-navigation operation in May went within 12 miles of Fiery Cross reef in the Spratly Islands and China scrambled fighter jets in response.

In January, a US destroyer went within 12 miles of Triton Island, and China called the action “irresponsible and extremely dangerous.”

US officials have said the operations will continue despite Beijing’s protests, but the Obama administration has been criticised in Congress for not conducting them more regularly and robustly.

The Chinese Defence Ministry statement accused the US of being a “troublemaker” in the South China at a time when “under the joint efforts of countries in this region” the situation is developing positively.

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“Under these circumstances, for the US to deploy ships to violate Chinese territorial waters is to wish for the whole world to be in chaos” and to cause troubles from which the US can profit, the statement said.

US Defence Department spokesman, Navy Commander Gary Ross denied the operation was provocative.

He said the US conducts these operations on a regular basis around the world. He said the operation “demonstrated that coastal states may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea” that all states are entitled to exercise under international law.

“This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims, not territorial claims to land features. The United States has been clear that we take no position on competing territorial sovereignty claims to naturally formed land features in the South China Sea,” he said.

Laura Zhou, Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse