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US Navy marks 5th anniversary of South China Sea ruling with destroyer FONOP

USS Benfold Paracel Islands freedom of navigation operation
USS Benfold (DDG 65) sailing through the South China Sea on July 12. 2021. Photo: US Navy

A US Navy guided-missile destroyer challenged China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea by sailing in the vicinity of the disputed Paracel Islands archipelago on July 12.

The timing of this freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) coincided with the fifth anniversary of the ruling of an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which firmly rejected China’s expansive South China Sea maritime claims as having no basis in international law.

USS Benfold (DDG 65) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law, the navy said in a release.

This FONOP upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to strait baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands.

China responded to the operation on Monday, saying the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces “expelled a US Navy destroyer that trespassed into Chinese territorial waters in the South China Sea.”

“The US move shows it is continuing its provocations in the name of “freedom of navigation” and with the illegal and invalid arbitral ruling, but China is displaying strong determination and capability – even more so than five years ago – in safeguarding its sovereignty and security,” a Global Times report said citing unnamed experts.

The United States regularly carries out FONOPs to challenge excessive maritime claims with the aim of preserving the freedom of the seas.

China, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. All three claimants require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel or warship engages in “innocent passage” through the territorial sea.

Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States – including their warships – enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law.

The US Navy also addressed a PRC statement about the latest mission, claiming it was “false.”

“USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters. The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle. The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing PRC says otherwise will deter us.”

Commenting on the fifth anniversary of the South China Sea ruling, US state secretary Anthony J. Blinken reiterated the United States’ resolve to defend the Philippines from attacks in the region, saying that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.