South China Sea: US Navy angers Beijing with first FONOP of 2019

US navy destroyer, the USS McCampbell, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands on Monday, Jan. 7

USS McCampbell departs Sydney, Aus. July, 2017

USS McCampbell departs Sydney, Aus. July, 2017 (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – U.S. Navy Destroyer, the USS McCampbell, conducted a freedom of Navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea on Monday, Jan. 7, which quickly drew an angry response from Beijing.

The USS McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China, but also claimed by Vietnam, as well as Taiwan. Beijing immediately sent naval vessels and aircraft to identify and monitor the USS McCampbell.

A U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson Lt. j.g. Rachel McMarr stated that, the FONOP was conducted “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” reports USNI News.

China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Lu Kang, addressed the encounter during a press briefing later on Monday, stating that Beijing had “lodged stern representations” with Washington.

“The US vessel violated Chinese laws and relevant international laws, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, and undermined peace, security and order of the relevant waters. The Chinese side firmly opposes the relevant action by the US side and urges the US to immediately stop such provocations. We will continue to take necessary measures to safeguard our national sovereignty and security.”

The voyage of the USS McCampbell marks the first publicized FONOP operation of the U.S. in the South China Sea for 2019.

In May 2018, the United States declared that it would begin to increase the frequency of FONOP operations in the South China Sea to “confront” China for actions that Washington deems to “be out of step with international law.”

The announcement was made by then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, shortly after two U.S. Navy Destroyers, the USS Antietam and USS Higgins, carried out a FONOP near the Paracel Islands.

In early October, the USS Decatur destroyer sailed near the Spratly Island chain, which is controlled by China, but claimed by the Philippines. During that FONOP, a Chinese destroyer nearly collided with the U.S. naval vessel.

China abruptly canceled a high-level security dialogue in Beijing following the incident, and since then Chinese military officials have made international headlines with increasingly threatening statements towards the U.S. Navy.

In early December, an Air Force Colonel Commandant speaking at an academic conference, said Chinese navy ships should attack U.S. naval vessels that violate China’s “territorial waters.”

Then in late December, a Chinese admiral speaking at a military industry summit declared that China should consider sinking one, or even two, U.S. aircraft carriers, and that the death of 5,000 or 10,000 sailors would send a message to frighten Washington.