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US destroyer exercises freedom of navigation off Paracel Islands, shadowed by Chinese Navy

USS Benfold Paracel Island FONOP
Photo captured from a Chinese Navy warship show USS Benfold performing the FONOP near the Paracel Islands. Photo: Chinese defense ministry

US Navy destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) completed a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands on July 13.

During the operation, which US Navy ships regularly undertake in the South China Sea to challenge excessive maritime claims, the destroyer was closely followed by Chinese aerial and naval assets.

In a rare move, China’s defense ministry also released photos of the US destroyer during the operation, alongside a rebuke of the actions.

A Chinese People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) sailors observes USS Benfold during the FONOP. Photo: Chinese defense ministry

A spokesman for the Chinese Southern Theater Command said that USS Benford “illegally entered China’s Xisha territorial waters without the approval of the Chinese government.”

“The actions of the US military have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously undermined the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and norms of international relations,” he added.

The US 7th Fleet said that USS Benfold exited the excessive claim area at the conclusion of the operation and continued operations in the South China Sea, adding that the US challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant.

“This freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging PRC’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” the command said.

The international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations.

The PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. In violation of international law, 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 US Navy says that by engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the US challenged these restrictions imposed by the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The United States also challenged the PRC’s 1996 declaration of straight baselines encompassing the Paracel Islands. Regardless of which claimant has sovereignty over these islands, it is unlawful to draw straight baselines around the Paracel Islands in their entirety, according to the US Navy.