US Warship Enters Regional Flashpoint, Chinese Military Says

US Warship Enters Regional Flashpoint, Chinese Military Says

The Chinese military on Monday accused an American warship of trespassing in the waters near Second Thomas Shoal, a hotspot in the South China Sea that threatens to bring China and the United States into a direct confrontation for the first time.

Maj. Tian Junli, a spokesperson for the Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army, said the USS Gabrielle Giffords did not have the Chinese government’s approval to operate in the Spratly Islands archipelago, calling it “a serious infringement of China’s sovereignty and national security.”

The submerged reef in the Spratlys is known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines. The U.S.’s oldest ally in Asia maintains de facto control over the area, but China, which calls the feature Ren’ai Reef, is making moves to possibly wrest control from its neighbor.

China’s territorial feud with the Philippines is escalating as the latter—backed by the U.S.—pushes back against Bejing’s claim over most of the energy-rich South China Sea. Just last month, Chinese coast guard ships boxed in Philippine government vessels on approach to the reef and blasted them with water cannons.

The Gabrielle Giffords is one of the U.S. Navy’s Independence-class littoral combat ships, a small, nimble warship designed to operate nearer to the coast. Littoral states on the South China Sea lack exactly its kind of capacity to patrol the region’s myriad contested features.

The PLA spokesperson said Chinese forces monitored and warned the Gabrielle Giffords as it made its way past Second Thomas Shoal. Washington was “deliberately stirring up trouble in the South China Sea,” he said.

The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which is based in Japan, rejected the allegation, saying the Gabrielle Giffords had been “conducting routine operations in international waters in the South China Sea, consistent with international law,” USNI News reported on Monday.

Neither side reported any unsafe or unprofessional behavior during the encounter.

Collin Koh, a maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said on X (formerly Twitter) that the U.S. warship’s presence near Second Thomas Shoal may have been a response to China’s “harrassment” of Philippine resupply missions to the atoll in recent months.

In 1999, Manila grounded World War II-era tank landing ship the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal in order to stake its claim there, but the active-duty warship risks falling into disrepair amid Beijing’s objections to any maintenance.

China says the ship’s presence is illegal and has accused the U.S. of emboldening its ally’s claim to the disputed area. The Philippines says China is violating international law by continuing to assert total control over the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, an area extending 200 miles from its coastline.

The Independence-class littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords conducts routine operations in the South China Sea on May 19, 2020. The Chinese military accused the Gabrielle Giffords of trespassing in waters near Second Thomas Shoal on December 4, 2023.
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brenton Poyser/U.S. Navy
The Navy’s Seventh Fleet did not respond to Newsweek’s written request for comment before publication. It was therefore unclear whether the Gabrielle Giffords was conducting a so-called freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP.

The Pentagon says FONOPs challenge the “excessive maritime claims” of both friend and foe. The U.S. encourages allied participation in FONOPs in the name of upholding international law, as was the case when Canada sailed a warship through the Taiwan Strait in early November.

China’s military said it expelled the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper from the Paracel Islands after a FONOP late last month.

The Seventh Fleet said the U.S. would “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows—regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events.”

This week, the Philippines accused China of amassing more than 100 paramilitary militia ships at another Spratlys feature called Whitsun Reef. China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that the purported fishing boats were sheltering from inclement weather.

In a major test of resolve for all parties, including the U.S., Manila has approved a Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy escort for a large civilian “Christmas convoy” planning to bring goods and other supplies to front-line military personnel and fishermen in the Spratlys, including near Second Thomas Shoal.

Under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, American troops are obliged to response militarily to any attack on Manila’s forces, including the coast guard vessels in the South China Sea.

Update 12/5/23, 1:50 a.m. ET: This article was updated with a statement from the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

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