The islands, named after a C19th British whaling captain, are the subject of a sovereignty dispute between China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. They offer rich fishing grounds and are believed to contain significant oil and natural gas reserves. The battleship USS Montgomery was tracked by the People Liberation Army (PLA) forces, as it sailed on January 25 in an area adjacent to where China controls a man-made island without Beijing’s authorisation.
In a sharply worded statement, Senior Colonel Li Huamin, spokesman for the PLA’s southern command said: “The US ship’s deliberate provocation during the traditional lunar Chinese New Year festival, which harboured ill intentions, is a naked act of navigational hegemony.”
He added: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and its islands, and no matter how the US deliberately schemes, comes up with new tricks, provokes and stirs up trouble, its efforts will be fruitless.”
In response, a spokesman for the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet insisted that no ship, either military or civilian, required permission to pass through the territorial seas and that its manoeuvres were in line with international law.
Lieutenant Joe Keiley claimed that the the US warship was sent specifically to challenge such restrictions imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
He said: “This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea.”
Under Trump, the US has increased naval patrols in the South China Sea since the Pentagon labeled China a “strategic competitor” in 2018.
The US navy has carried out at least 85 joint military exercises with its allies in the Indo-Pacific region in 2019.
This is an attempt to counter Beijing’s rise as a maritime power in the South China Sea.
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As a result of this heightened activity by the US navy, China has decided to increase its own military exercises to prepare for “unexpected confrontations” in the disputed waters.
This involved carrying out an early warning reconnaissance drill in mid-November last year.
Naval commander Yan Liang told the PLA Daily, Beijing’s military mouthpiece: “Different from the exercises conducted last year on early warning reconnaissance, this drill was much longer in time span, put in a confrontational mode from the start and had an emphasis on night-time training.”
He added: “This kind of drill continuously challenged the limits of our personnel and equipment, and helped strengthen the emergency combat capabilities of the army.”
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China claims territorial hegemony over the disputed waters, in a move that has brought it into a growing conflict with its neighbours, as well as the United States.
Beijing insists that its territorial claims are legitimate and conform to international law.
The People’s Republic says that the entire waterway up to the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan belongs to them, a claim rejected by an international court of arbitration in 2016.
However, Beijing has never recognised this court ruling, saying the court’s resolution runs counter to international law.
The South China Sea is a major shipping route for global commerce, with 21 percent of global trade passing through its waters in 2016 alone.
As a major exporting country, China views ensuring access for its ships through the South China Sea as a major strategic security issue.
In addition the disputed waters are believed to contain huge deposits of oil and gas.
Experts believe that there are up to 11 billion barrels worth of oil under the South China Sea along with 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Beijing is keen to secure its fair share of these hydrocarbons to meet the demands of its ever growing industry.