A US destroyer sailed near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Wednesday, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet announced, days after China imposed new maritime identification rules that include the disputed body of water.
The USS Benfold, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, sailed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef, a portion of the Spratly Islands upon which the Chinese have built military facilities.
“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 7th Fleet read following the freedom of navigation operation. “The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law.”
The passage near Mischief Reef comes days after China imposed the new maritime identification rules on its territorial waters, including its claims on much of the South China Sea. On September 1, China instituted a new rule that requires many ships to identify their names, call signs, current positions, next ports of call and estimated times of arrival with Chinese authorities upon entering the country’s territorial waters.
When the USS Benfold passed near the Spratly Islands without abiding by the new rule, China accused the US of “illegally” entering its waters, claiming it had driven away the ship.
“On September 8th, 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.”