USS Benfold Challenges China's New Straight-Baseline Claims
On January 20, the destroyer USS Benfold passed through the Paracel Islands in a routine challenge to Beijing's sweeping maritime claims.
In the most recent iteration of its claim to sovereignty over the vast majority of the South China Sea, the Chinese government says that it has the right to enclose the waters surrounding four Chinese-occupied island groups with straight baselines, thereby extending the reach of its territorial seas far beyond UNCLOS' 12-mile limit.
"It is unlawful to draw straight baselines around the Paracel Islands in their entirety," wrote U.S. 7th Fleet in a statement. "The PRC-claimed straight baseline violates international law as reflected in Article 7 of the Law of the Sea Convention."
The new "Four Sha" straight-baseline claim is a deviation from China's previous line of argument for ownership of the South China Sea. For years, China's claim has centered on a "nine dash line" chart created by the Republic of China in 1947. This historical claim was dismissed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016.
The Benfold's transit was also intended to challenge a more commonplace breach of UNCLOS. Taiwan, Vietnam and China all claim ownership of the Paracels, and all three require advance notice or explicit permission before a military vessel conducts an "innocent passage" through the territorial sea extending from the islands. UNCLOS allows innocent passage for all vessels, including warships, for routine transits through other nations' territorial seas. The clause is often infringed upon by coastal states' regulations, and the U.S. Navy's Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) program has challenged these infringements for decades. (The U.S. is not itself a signatory to UNCLOS).
"Our operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows - regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events," 7th Fleet wrote.
After the transit, the PLA Southern Theater Command reported that its forces challenged and "evicted" USS Benfold from waters that belong to China. In a statement, spokesman Col. Tian Junli said that Benfold's transit was "iron proof that [the U.S.] is pursuing navigational hegemony and militarizing the South China Sea."
7th Fleet rejected this assertion and said that Benfold exited the Paracels as planned after her mission.
"The PLA(N) Southern Theater’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea," 7th Fleet wrote. "The PRC's behavior stands in contrast to the United States' adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region."
USS Benfold is a familiar presence in the South China Sea. In July 2021, she conducted a transit of the Strait of Taiwan, and in September 2021 she transited within 12 nm of Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef.