An American warship on Saturday patrolled the disputed South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, “to challenge excessive maritime claims” that restrict the rights and freedoms of the US and others.
The daring freedom of navigation operation by the US, mainly aimed at China, was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in a lead story.
“A US warship conducted a patrol Saturday around an island in the South China Sea claimed by China and two of its neighbors, another in a series of operations intended to challenge Beijing’s maritime and territorial claims in the region,” the daily said.
The Pentagon confirmed its operation in South China Sea.
“I can confirm the Department of Defense conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea on Jan 30 (Jan 29 EST), specifically in the vicinity of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands, to challenge excessive maritime claims,” Commander Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, told PTI in response to a question.
This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas, he said. The excessive claims regarding Triton Island are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.
“During the operation, the USS Curtis Wilbur, transited in innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island,” Urban said, adding that this operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the US and others, not about territorial claims to land features.
According to the daily, the operation lasted about three hours, during which there were no Chinese army or navy seen in the area. “We saw nothing that was unusual in terms of the reaction,” a senior defense official was quoted as saying.
The US takes no position on competing sovereignty claims between the parties to naturally-formed land features in the South China Sea, Urban reiterated.
However, Urban said that US does take a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries and that all maritime claims must comply with international law.
“No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law,” he said. This operation demonstrates, as US President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary have stated, the US will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.
“That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe,” Urban said.
Since 1979, the US Freedom of Navigation program has demonstrated non-acquiescence to excessive maritime claims by coastal states all around the world. The program includes both consultations and representation by US diplomats and operational activities by US military forces.