KEY POINTS

  • The transit is the USS Benfold's seventh FONOP in the area this year
  • USS Carl Vinson and its strike group was training in the area as the FONOP happened
  • USS Carl Vinson's air wing includes F-35 stealth fighters
  • China enacted its new maritime law last month
  • China claims it "drove off" U.S. warship

A U.S. Navy warship sailed through the South China Sea on Wednesday in a clear and quick repudiation of the new maritime law that Beijing enacted last month to enforce its expansive claims over the contested waters.

The USS Benfold, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, steamed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef, a part of the Spratly Islands, which China claims as its own and has built military facilities on, reported CNN. The Navy has conducted such Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPs) regularly in recent years. The Benfold's was the seventh FONOP in the area this year.

Interestingly, as the Benfold made its way through the contested wters, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its strike group were training elsewhere in the region, Stars and Stripes reported quoting Carl Vinson spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Miranda Williams. 

The Carl Vinson's air component include the F-35C Lighting II stealth fighters and CMV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.

The new maritime law, which China notified at the end of last month, requires foreign ships entering its "territorial waters" to report to Beijing about their transit. China claims much of the South China Sea under what is called "Nine-Dash Line."  

There are competing claims over the Spratly chain from Vietnam and Taiwan, which claim the entirety of the chain; and the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei which claim parts of the chain.

"Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, features like Mischief Reef that are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea," a statement from Seventh Fleet read following the warship's transit.

The ship also transited the Taiwan strait in July, provoking Beijing's anger as it considers Taiwan a breakaway province. 

"The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law," the Navy's statement added. 

Hours after China notified the new law, the Pentagon said "it will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows." 

China lashed out at the U.S. over the destroyer's transit, accusing Washington of "illegally" entering its waters — a response that has now become commonplace after such encounters. China claimed its forces drove off the U.S. warship.

"On Sept. 8, the USS Benfold guided-missile destroyer illegally broke into the waters adjacent to the Mischief Reef of Nansha islands without the approval of the Chinese government," Air Force Col. Tian Junli, spokesperson for China's Southern Theater Command, said in a statement. "The air force carried out follow-up surveillance and issued a warning to drive it away."

The statement said the U.S. action seriously violated China's "sovereignty and security" and added that it is an "ironclad evidence" that showcases the U.S.' "hegemony and militarization of the South China Sea."

The Seventh Fleet termed China's statement "false" and called it "latest in a long string of actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims" in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Navy also ramped up its presence in the region by operating a carrier strike group in the waters. "The Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group is currently conducting maritime security operations, strike exercises, and other types of training," the Navy said Wednesday.

China also makes its protest known through a report in the state-backed Global Times which called out "U.S. hegemony." 

According to the report, the US will "definitely see the PLA show up at its doorstep in the not-too-distant future."

The dispute got reflected in social media too with Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin's tweeting that "Hopefully when Chinese warships pass through the Caribbean Sea or show up near Hawaii and Guam one day, the US will uphold the same standard of freedom of navigation. That day will come soon."

The Navy chief of information replied, "The @USNavy has upheld the standards of freedom of navigation longer than the PLA navy has existed." 

USS Benfold The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) fires its Mark 38 25mm gun as part of a live-fire gunnery exercise during Pacific Griffin, June 29, 2021. Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Deanna Gonzales/U.S. Navy