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China Sends Military to Intercept U.S. in Disputed Sea

Newsweek logo Newsweek 1/8/2019 Tom O'Connor
a close up of some water © Chinese People's Liberation Army

The Chinese military has moved to intercept U.S. warships sailing through the contested South China Sea in the latest of what has been a series of tense encounters surrounding the two powers in the Asia-Pacific.

The U.S. Navy deployed its Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell into the contested waters just 12 nautical miles from Paracel Islands, one of the numerous land formations that were claimed by China as well as other nations in the region. In a statement sent to Reuters, Pacific Fleet spokesperson Rachel McMarr said Monday that the maneuver was part of a "freedom of navigation" operation intended "to challenge excessive maritime claims," though she claimed there was no specific target or political message.

The move was met with deep criticism in Beijing, which has vast claims to the spanning South China Sea, including nearby Taiwan, a self-ruling island nation whose nationalist government split with the communist-run mainland after losing a civil war in 1949. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang confirmed during a press conference later that day that the U.S. sent a vessel into the area "without permission from the Chinese side."

"The Chinese side immediately sent military vessels and aircraft to conduct verification and identification on the U.S. ship and warned it to leave," Lu told the briefing. "We have lodged stern representations with the U.S. side."

China's claims to the area overlap with those of Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam and include the entirety of the Spratly Islands—where the U.S. has accused China of installing military infrastructure—and the Scarborough Shoal. Both Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Paracel Islands and the U.S. has contended that its ships only passed through international waters, something Chinese officials refuted.

"The relevant action by the US vessel violated Chinese laws and relevant international laws, infringed upon China's sovereignty, and undermined peace, security and order of the relevant waters," Lu said. "The Chinese side firmly opposes the relevant action by the U.S. side and urges the U.S. to immediately stop such provocations. We will continue to take necessary measures to safeguard our national sovereignty and security."

a large ship in the water: The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell fires its Mark 45 5-inch gun during a live-fire training exercise in the waters south of Japan, May 17, 2017. China views U.S. © Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeremy Graham/U.S. Navy/Department of Defense The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell fires its Mark 45 5-inch gun during a live-fire training exercise in the waters south of Japan, May 17, 2017. China views U.S. Chinese senior colonel Li Huamin confirmed that China had deployed forces to the region in response to the USS McCampbell's passage and said that the Southern Theater Command "will remain on high alert, closely monitor relevant maritime and air situations and resolutely safeguard China's sovereignty and security."

The U.S.'s "freedom of navigation" challenge was based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ratified by China, but not the U.S. Concern over Beijing's control of the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest maritime traffic routes, has rattled officials in Washington and the Pentagon. 

Monday's events also came as China and the U.S. came together for talks in an attempt to settle a trade war that has cost both countries billions of dollars. President Donald Trump has accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of pursuing dishonest economic practices, including currency manipulation and the forced sharing of intellectual property among other accusations that the White House has labeled a threat to job security at home.

As the U.S. and China attempted to smooth over their financial dispute, Xi has also escalated on another front. The Chinese leader said Friday that Taiwan "must be, will be reunified" with the mainland government, offering the government in Taipei a limited autonomy package akin to that of Hong Kong and reserving "the option of taking all necessary means," including "the use of force."

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen refused the offer, saying that it was "it is impossible for me—or in my view, any responsible politician in Taiwan—to accept President Xi Jinping's recent remarks, without betraying the trust and will of the people of Taiwan."


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