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US defies China by sailing warship near Spratly Islands, Beijing claims its air force drove ship away

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG65) sails through the South China Sea while conducting routine underway operations. Benfold is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy Photo)

A US Navy destroyer sailed near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Wednesday in open defiance of China’s new maritime identification rules for the disputed area.

The US 7th Fleet has announced that USS Benfold, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, sailed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef, a portion of the Spratly Islands on which the Chinese have built military facilities.

US President Joe Biden had said, after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, that China would now be the main area of focus for the US and its allies from the security standpoint. The development comes merely days after Biden’s speech. 

Also read:  India and Singapore parade their naval power next to disputed South China Sea

"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 said.

"The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law."

The freedom of navigation operation near Mischief Reef comes merely a week after China came up with a new rule that requires many ships to identify their names, call signs, next ports of call and estimated times of arrival with Chinese authorities upon entering the country's territorial waters.

China accused the US of "illegally" entering its waters and claimed 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. The air force carried out follow-up surveillance and issued a warning to drive it away,” Air Force Col. Tian Junli, spokesperson for China's Southern Theatre Command, said in a statement.

"The activity has seriously violated China's sovereignty and security and showcases the US's "hegemony and militarization of the South China Sea."

Beijing claims nearly the entire South China Sea including the Spratly Islands and has been bullying its smaller neighbours including The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei who have claims over the islands and reefs.

In 2016, an international tribunal at The Hague had rejected China’s claim in the South China Sea. The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling in the area.

The Mischief Reef is located some 250 km from The Philippines coast.