On Tuesday, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) “expelled a US warship that trespassed into Chinese territorial waters off the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea as the US' move could have easily caused an accident,” as the Global Times put it.
"We urge the US side to focus on the epidemic prevention and control on its homeland, contribute more to the international fight against the pandemic and immediately stop military actions against regional security, peace and stability," Senior Colonel Li Huamin, a spokesperson of the PLA Southern Theater Command, told the Times.
The US has registered more than 1 million cases of the novel coronavirus, and more than 50,000 Americans have died. Li’s rhetoric mirrors that used against Beijing for months by adversaries such as Taiwan, which perpetually peppered their condemnations of Chinese military maneuvers with urgings to focus on the COVID-19 outbreak instead. The virus originated in Wuhan, causing a major outbreak earlier this year that has mostly subsided.
Li told the Times the PLAN dispatched naval and aerial forces to follow the ship after it trespassed into Chinese territorial waters, warning it to leave until it did.
US Battle Group Drills in Region
The warship was the USS Barry, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer that has been stirring up trouble in the region for days. On Friday, the Barry transited the Taiwan Strait, which Beijing regards as internal waters since it doesn’t recognize the autonomy of Taiwan. The warship then returned to the South China Sea, where it rejoined a group of warships that included the Ticonderoga-class guided missile-cruiser USS Bunker Hill, the Australian Anzac-class frigate HMAS Parramatta and, most importantly, the amphibious assault ship USS America, an aircraft carrier capable of dispatching thousands of US Marines.
The battle group’s drills have “included integrated live fire exercises, coordinated helicopter operations, small boat force protection drills, command and control integration, and maneuvering interoperability,” the US Navy announced on April 22. On Tuesday, that was expanded to include sailing provocatively close to the Xisha Islands, a chain of tiny dots of land called the Paracel Islands in English and the Hoang Sa Archipelago by the Vietnamese.
Both missions are what the Pentagon calls “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPS), based on the idea that the waterways are international waters, posturing to disregard China’s claims to control the area.
"By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea, and that China's claimed straight baselines around the Paracel Islands are inconsistent with international law,” a US Pacific Fleet spokesperson told CNN on Tuesday.
“These provocative acts by the US side … have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, deliberately increased regional security risks and could easily trigger an unexpected incident,” the South China Morning Post quoted Li as saying in a statement on WeChat. “[The acts] were incompatible with the current atmosphere as the international community is fighting pandemic … as well as the regional peace and stability.”
Beijing Expands Island Administration
China has laid claim to dozens of tiny islands in the South China Sea, a region believed to house large hydrocarbon reserves and that carries trillions of dollars in seaborne trade annually. Beijing claims historic right to roughly 90% of the region, roughly defined by the so-called Nine Dash Line. However, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan have also made claims on parts of the waterway, all of which somewhat overlap with China’s claims.
Many of those islands, however, are little more than reefs reinforced against high tides by earth dredged up from the seafloor, leading many nations to refuse recognition of the artificial islets.
However, Chinese administration has continued to push forward. The city of Sansha, a prefecture-level administrative town established on Yongxing Island in the Xisha Islands in 2012, established its first municipal districts earlier this month, Global Times reported on April 18.
China’s Natural Resources Ministry and Civil Affairs Ministry also announced the Chinese names and coordinates belonging to 25 islands, shoals, and reefs, as well as 55 submerged oceanic mountains and ridges, Agence France-Presse reported on April 22.