China Reacts Strongly to Two U.S. Warships Sailing Close to Disputed Paracel Islands
Royal Thai Navy frigate HTMS Bangpakong (FFG 456) is underway alongside the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76). (U.S Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Alex Mabini/Released)

China has reacted angrily after two U.S. warships sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, describing the move as a “provocation” and accusing America of committing a serious infringement of the country’s sovereignty.

The American vessels — the Higgins, a destroyer, and the Antietam, a cruiser — passed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, an archipelago in the northern part of the disputed waters of the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam.

The chief spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, said that the United States “gravely violated Chinese sovereignty.”

China’s military announced on Sunday that it had dispatched warships to challenge the two U.S Navy vessels that sailed through waters in the South China Sea that China claims as its own. A statement issued by the defence ministry said Chinese vessels and aircraft warned American ships as their presence, “contravened Chinese and relevant international law, seriously infringed upon Chinese sovereignty [and] harmed strategic mutual trust between the two militaries”, it said.

The U.S. Navy’s operation seems to be an attempt by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters. The South China Sea is a major navigational route which sees about $5 trillion worth in ship-borne trade flows.

In recent months, China has appeared more determined to defend its claims in the South China Sea, reinforcing and arming its bases on the disputed islands. Satellite photographs taken on May 12 showed China appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles at one particular outpost, Woody Island, and earlier this month, China’s air force landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs as part of a training exercise in the region. It triggered concern from Vietnam and the Philippines, who do not think China has territorial rights that far into what they consider international waters.

China has been developing on the reefs and atolls despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which had said there was no legal basis for China’s maritime claims that extended approximately 1,000 miles beyond its shore to waters abutting Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam.