KEY POINTS

  • Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the sea, U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said
  • This comes just days after USS John S. McCain sailed near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken said U.S. rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea beyond what is permitted under international law

In another sign that the Joe Biden administration is taking a tough stance against China’s maritime claims, a U.S. Navy warship on Wednesday sailed by islands claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea. 

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

“This freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.”

This comes just days after the USS John S. McCain sailed near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands and a joint exercise by two U.S. carrier groups — led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Nimitz — in the South China Sea. 

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the sea, including freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement. 

China’s claims over the Spratly archipelago have been contested by Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam. Beijing has transformed reefs into artificial islands and built military bases on some of them, raising concerns among the other countries.
 
The Biden administration has reaffirmed support to Southeast Asian countries with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying last month that the U.S. rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea beyond what is permitted under international law. 

Blinken also said former President Donald Trump “was right in taking a tougher approach to China” during his confirmation hearing. The Trump administration had termed China’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful.” 

China has earlier complained about the presence of U.S. vessels around the islands it claims in the South China Sea. It protested this month after the USS John S. McCain carried out a freedom of navigation operation near the Paracel Islands. 

The People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command accused the U.S. of infringing on China's sovereignty and security, according to South China Morning Post

Beijing claims historical rights to vast swathes of the South China Sea, including islands, reefs and atolls in the Spratlys Beijing claims historical rights to vast swathes of the South China Sea, including islands, reefs and atolls in the Spratlys Photo: AFP / TED ALJIBE