US warship asserts sailing rights near Spratlys

A U.S. Navy warship sailed by islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Wednesday in a freedom of navigation operation, marking the latest move by Washington to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the contested waters. Reuters reports.

The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said destroyer USS Russell “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law.”

China claims sovereignty over the entire archipeligo, but Brunei, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have lodged competing claims for some or all of the islands.

China’s extensive territorial claims in the resource-rich waters have become a hot button issue in an increasingly testy Sino-U.S. relationship. The two countries are at odds over trade, the origins of the pandemic, Hong Kong, Taiwan and accusations of human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims.

Washington has denounced what it called Beijing’s attempts to bully neighbours with competing interests. China has repeatedly denounced what it called U.S. efforts to foment unrest in the region and interfere in what it regards as its internal affairs.

The U.S. ship’s pass by the Spratly Islands follows a joint exercise by two U.S. carrier groups in South China Sea and another warship sailing near Chinese-controlled Paracel islands earlier this month. Those actions had suggested that the Biden administration was not about to scale back operations challenging Beijing’s claims after the ramp-up seen during the Trump administration.

The US Navy says that China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines each claim sovereignty over some or all of the Spratly Islands. China, Vietnam, and Taiwan require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in “innocent passage” through the territorial sea.

Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States –including their warships –enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.

The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law.

By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions.-Photo: US Navy 7th Fleet

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