U.S. Claims Chinese Destroyer Encounter was Unsafe
The U.S. Navy carried out a freedom of navigation operation with the destroyer USS Decatur in the South China Sea on Sunday, with a Navy spokesperson claiming it resulted in an unsafe encounter with a Chinese destroyer.
USS Decatur, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese artificial islands at Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratley Islands. The reefs are claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
U.S. media outlets have quoted defense officials saying the USS Decatur had to maneuver "to prevent a collision" after a Chinese destroyer approached within 45 yards. The Chinese warship "conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for the Decatur to depart the area."
In 2016, an UNCLOS decision classified the two reefs as “rocks” that have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.
The last major publicized U.S. freedom of navigation operation in the area took place in May 2018 when the destroyer USS Higgins and the cruiser USS Antietam sailed within 12 nautical miles of islands in the disputed Paracel Islands. At the time, China's Ministry of National Defense called it a serious infringement on China's sovereignty.
Just prior to that, the U.S. uninvited China from the U.S.-hosted Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval drill which were held off Hawaii after China announced that it had for the first time landed its H-6K strategic bomber on an outpost in the Paracels. The U.S. had earlier formally protested the deployment of missiles and radar equipment on three artificial islands China has built in the Spratly Islands. U.S. officials accused China of breaking a promise Xi Jinping made in 2015 when he said China did not intend to militarize the disputed territories.
In March this year, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mustin conducted freedom of navigation operations in proximity to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. At the time, a spokesperson for U.S. Pacific Fleet said: “We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future.”