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A US naval challenge to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea is getting a tepid response

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) — A day after China said it had turned a US Navy destroyer out of waters claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, the US 7th Fleet said the same warship had passed through those waters, challenging China’s claim.

“The guided-missile destroyer USS Milius asserted its rights and freedoms of navigation in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands in accordance with international law,” 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Luka Pacic.

The warship was conducting what the U.S. Navy calls “operational freedom” or FONOP, “in defiance of restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan and Vietnam,” Pakik said.

All three claim the Paracels Islands, known in China as the Xishas, ​​a group of about 130 small atolls, the largest of which are Chinese military bases.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Milius conducts a freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea on Friday. (Credit: MC1 Greg Johnson/United States Navy)

A U.S. report said the Milius guided-missile destroyer denied China’s claim to Beijing’s claims to inter-island waters, i.e., “a straight line around the Paracel (islands),” despite being beyond the internationally recognized limit of 12 nautical miles. From a coast for territorial purposes.

China claims the entire vast South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including several islands and remote inlets in disputed waters, many of which Beijing has already militarized.

Besides Taiwan and Vietnam, other claimants include Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, where a UN court ruled in their favor in a dispute with Beijing over the Spratly group of islands.

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But Beijing has defied the UN ruling and built military bases on disputed islands in the Spratlys, known in China as the Nansha Islands, as it has done in Paracels.

Chinese reaction

On Friday, China reacted angrily to the presence of a US warship near the islands it claims.

“The actions of the U.S. military have grossly violated China’s sovereignty and security and have gravely violated international law,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Dan Kefei said in a statement.

“The USS Milius guided-missile destroyer has again entered Chinese territory off Shisha without the Chinese government’s permission, undermining peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Tan said.

On Thursday, Beijing said it had been driven out of Paracels by Militia People’s Liberation Army forces, a claim the US Seventh Fleet said was “false”.

Beijing issued similar claims after other FONOPs, which the US continues to conduct around the Paracels and Spratlys in the south.

Paracels is located south of China’s Hainan Island, east of Da Nang, Vietnam.

Any U.S. naval activity in the South China Sea stokes tensions and Washington and its allies maintain a naval presence in the waterway, with Beijing regularly issuing statements that harm the region’s security.

The area around Paracels was the site of a tense encounter between a Chinese fighter jet and a US spy plane in February, which a CNN crew witnessed.

Then and now, Washington has been consistent in its reporting of its activities in the South China Sea.

“These actions demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate where international law allows, regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and ongoing events,” Friday’s statement said, as have many before it.

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In recent years, the South China Sea has become a major potential hotspot in the Asia Pacific.

Not only does the strategic waterway contain vast resources of fish, oil and gas, but a third of the world’s shipping passes through it, worth about $3.4 trillion in 2016, according to the Center for Strategic Studies and International (CSIS) China Power Project. .

China conducts regular military exercises in much of the South China Sea and maintains a large presence of coast guards and fishing boats in the disputed waters, which often fuel tensions with other claimants.

–CNN Beijing bureau contributed to this report.