KEY POINTS

  • The USS Ralph Johnson conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation Tuesday, July 14
  • Pompeo’s statement provided clarification on how the U.S. viewed the South China Sea issue
  • China continues to build a network of islands and man-made atolls with military fortifications in the territory

Most of China’s claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea were "illegitimate", Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday, July 13. The following day, the United States Navy warship USS Ralph Johnson, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near the contested Spratly Islands. 

The navy released some photos and a spokesperson confirmed the ship was in the area. Pompeo’s statement provided some needed clarification on how the U.S. viewed the South China Sea. It also created a path for a stronger response to China’s actions that were now deemed unlawful by most countries.

The navy’s statement read, "This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas."

"The United States upholds freedom of navigation as a principle. As long as some countries continue to claim and assert limits on rights that exceed their authority under international law, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all. No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms."

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian called the navy’s statement "irresponsible." 

"It violates and distorts international law, deliberately stokes territorial and maritime disputes, and undermines regional peace and stability. We strongly deplore and firmly oppose the wrong move by the U.S. and urge it to stop stirring up trouble on the South China Sea issue and stop continuing down the wrong path," Business Insider India reported him as saying.

In 2016, the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague discredited many of China's claims two years before Pompeo assumed his duties as the secretary of state. China continues to defy the ruling and has built a network of islands and man-made atolls with military fortifications aimed at bolstering its claims that the territory belongs to the country and not international waters.

The Philippines and Indonesia sided with Pompeo in calling on China to abide by the 2016 ruling. Malaysia’s foreign ministry declined to comment.

However, Zhao continued to emphasize China’s position that it has had effective jurisdiction over the islands, reefs, and waters of the South China Sea for more than 1,000 years. He denied in a Tuesday press briefing that China is seeking to build a maritime empire.

Last month a US Navy destroyer sailed close to Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea, to assert freedom of navigation rights Last month, a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed close to Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea, to assert freedom of navigation rights. Photo: US NAVY / Rawad MADANAT