Calling it the “biggest destroyer of peace”, China on Wednesday deployed fighter jets and lashed out at the US, after a frontline American warship sailed past a reef close to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS). The SCS is one of the world’s busiest maritime trade lanes.
The US navy’s destroyer USS Benfold sailed past the Mischief Reef, located close to Spratly Islands, known as Nansha in China. The US said that it was part of FONOP (Freedom of Navigation Operation).
The ring-shaped Mischief Reef is located 250km from The Philippines coast.
Beijing claims nearly the entire SCS including the Spratly Islands. But several of its maritime neighbours including The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have also competing claims over the islands and reefs.
In July, 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea. The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line”.
In 2017 it was reported that China had built several military installations on the Spratly Islands including on the Mischief Reef to effectively bolster its claim.
This is not the first time that a US warship has sailed close to the reef. China has directed sharp criticism at US as warships from the US navy frequently sail near the disputed islands.
“On September 8, USS Benfold (DDG 65) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law. This FONOP upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea. USS Benfold demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law,” Lt Mark Langford, deputy public affairs officer of US 7th Fleet said in a statement.
“The US engaged in ‘normal operations’ within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef. Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, features like Mischief Reef that are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea. The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterisation under international law,” it said.