KEY POINTS

  • The US Navy calls it a "freedom of navigation" operation
  • China says PLA ships and planes followed the US vessel 
  • USS Curtis Wilbur transited Taiwan Strait Tuesday

Hours after U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend open and safe sea lanes in the South China Sea, destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands, irking China.  

U.S. 7th Fleet spokesperson Lt. j.g. Nicholas Lingo said the guided-missile destroyer performed what the U.S. Navy calls a "freedom of navigation" operation, asserting "navigational rights and freedoms... consistent with international law."

Paracel Islands, in the northwestern portion of the South China Sea, have been under Chinese control for decades. China grabbed the islands in 1974 after a short battle with South Vietnamese forces, before fortifying it with military installations.  

Beijing retorted quickly, saying the U.S. warship illegally entered its territorial waters, reported Reuters.  The Chinese military's Southern Theater Command said in a notice posted on social media that PLA ships and planes followed the U.S. vessel. 

PLA Southern Theater Command's Colonel Tian Junli said the US actions "increase regional security risks, which easily cause misunderstandings, misjudgments, and unforeseen maritime incidents." He called the U.S. actions "unprofessional and irresponsible which demonstrates that the U.S. is an out-and-out 'South China Sea security risk creator." 

Biden Wednesday called out Russia and China for asserting their controls over maritime regions in the Arctic and the South China Sea, during an address to the United States Coast Guard Academy's 2021 graduating class.

Biden said it is of vital interest to America’s foreign policy to secure unimpeded flow of global commerce. "When nations try to game the system or tip the rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance. That's why we are so adamant that these areas of the world that are the arteries of trade and shipping remain peaceful, whether that's the South China Sea, the Arabian Gulf, and, increasingly, the Arctic," Biden said. 

Beijing had earlier warned Washington about sailing the USS Curtis Wilbur through the Taiwan Strait earlier this week.  The PLA had called the guided-missile destroyer’s passage through the strait Tuesday as an act that endangered peace and stability in the region. However, the Seventh Fleet described it as a "routine" transit, adding that the U.S. military will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows.

This is the fifth time this year that a U.S. warship transits the Taiwan Strait. Ever since he assumed office, Biden has strengthened ties with Taiwan. The President praised the Coast Guard agreement with Taiwan for improving the capability to respond to threats in the region. 

Last month, aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Makin Island patrolled to the south of Taiwan, in retaliation to China's aggression over the island nation.

China accused the United States of 'creating risks' in the South China Sea after the USS Curtis Wilbur (pictured here in 2018) sailed through disputed waters A file picture of USS Curtis Wilbur sailing through the disputed waterways of South China Sea Photo: US NAVY / Benjamin DOBBS