Over the weekend, the United States followed up on its promise to send more patrols through the disputed South China Sea with a US Navy destroyer sailing within 12 nautical miles of an island claimed by China. Unsurprisingly, the two sides have conflicting stories on what exactly went down.
The Pentagon said it sent out the destroyer to “counter efforts to limit freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, where China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia hold competing claims.
The US Navy conducted a similar exercise in late October of last year, sailing the guided-missile destroyer Lassen close to one of China’s man-made islands, in an incident that provoked serious condemnation on the Chinese side, but ended amicably enough.
This time, the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur passed near Triton Island (Zhongjian Dao) in the Paracels (Xisha Islands) and then went away.
But it is how the USS Curtis Wilbur went away that is important.
Immediately afterward, China issued a statement, condemning the US and urging it “not to undermine the mutual trust and regional peace and stability.” Which apparently is possible.
Furthermore, China’s foreign ministry said that Chinese navy vessels had “taken responsive action, conducted identification checks and promptly gave warnings for the ship to keep its distance.”
Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun went even further saying that “Chinese troops on the islands and Navy vessels and warplanes took actions immediately. They identified and verified the US warship, warned and expelled it swiftly.”
In its report on the incident, China Daily went with the headline: “China drives off US destroyer intruding into Xisha Islands waters.”
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis said that there were no ships from the Chinese Navy in the vicinity during the USS Curtis Wilbur’s special voyage.
Davis said that the US takes no position on the assortment of competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. It is merely protesting policies that require permission or notification to transit near the claimed islands.
Chinese law says that foreign warships must be approved by Beijing before entering China’s territorial waters. China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea, which it seems to be turning into a tourist paradise with the occasional filling station.
“Regardless of whatever provocative steps the American side takes, China’s military will take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security,” the foreign ministry’s statement concluded.