China expels US warship from South China Sea, a first under Biden presidency

China on Friday said it has expelled a US guided missile destroyer from the South China Sea, a day after the same warship passed through the Taiwan Strait.

The People’s Liberation Army’s southern theatre command issued a statement saying it deployed warships and aircraft to warn and drive away USS John S McCain from near the Xisha Island (Paracel Island in English) in the SCS region.

The US Navy has said it was carrying out a lawful, “freedom of navigation operation”.

Friday’s exchange is part of the war of words that has broken out between Beijing and Washington on the passage of the US warship through the region in the past 24 hours – for the first time since Joe Biden took over as President in January.

Four years of Donald Trump’s presidency saw increased tensions between the world powers over a range of issues including disputes in the SCS region and Taiwan.

China claims nearly the entire SCS, but that claim is disputed by several maritime neighbours including The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia besides Vietnam and Taiwan (which China claims to be its breakaway region).

Tian Junli, spokesperson of the Chinese theatre command, said the passage of the US warship “seriously” infringed upon China’s sovereignty and security, undermined regional peace and stability, and deliberately disrupted the “good atmosphere” of peace, friendship, and cooperation in the SCS maritime zone.

In a statement, the US Navy said its warship was asserting international navigational rights in the SCS region.

“On Feb 5 (local time) USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law,” Lt Joe Keiley, US Navy’s 7th Fleet spokesperson, said.

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“This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” Keiley said.

The spokesperson added that China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands.

“All three claimants require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel or warship 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.”

Keiley added: “The unilateral imposition of any authorisation 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 US demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions.”

Meanwhile, China’s defence ministry has said that it has successfully conducted a land-based midcourse missile interception test within its territory on February 4, and “achieved the desired test objective. The test is defensive in nature and not targeted against any country.”

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