China issues ‘stern’ warning to the US after destroyer sails close to islands which it claims in disputed South China Sea as trade talks get underway

  • USS McCampbell sailed near Paracel Islands, in the disputed South China Sea
  • China claims islands are its territory and that it owns the surrounding waters 
  • But US says sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, is international waters
  • China has made ‘stern representations’ to US officials in Beijing amid trade talks 

China has made ‘stern representations’ to the US after an American destroyer sailed through waters claimed by Beijing in the disputed South China Sea. 

Chinese officials spoke to their US counterparts as they arrived in Beijing for talks aimed at deescalating an ongoing trade war.

China has long claimed territorial rights over the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, but the US argues it is international waters.

The USS McCampbell, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Monday, prompting an angry reaction from Beijing

To that end, America carries out what it calls ‘freedom of navigation operations’ by sailing within 12 nautical miles of islands claimed by the Chinese – but which also have rival claims from other nations, including US allies.

The U.N. defines territorial waters as being within 12 nautical miles of a country’s coastline. 

On Monday the USS McCampbell, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands ‘to challenge excessive maritime claims’ by China, Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said.

China has controlled the islands since seizing control of them from Vietnamese forces in 1974, but Vietnam and Taiwan still lay claim to them. 

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They are different to the Spratley Islands – a series of artificial islands constructed by the Chinese and which have been fitted with military bases and airfields. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that the conduct of the U.S. ship had violated China’s and international law, and that China had sent military ships and aircraft to identify and warn off the ship.

‘We urge the United States to immediately cease this kind of provocation,’ he said.

The statement came as trade talks between China and the United States were under way in Beijing, the first round of face-to-face discussions since both sides agreed to a 90-day truce in a trade war that has roiled international markets.

Asked about the timing of the operation during trade talks, Lu said resolving issues would benefit the two countries and the world.

China claims sovereignty over the islands and the waters surrounding them, but the US argues the islands are unclaimed and the surrounding ocean is international waters

‘Both sides have the responsibility to create the necessary positive atmosphere for this,’ he said.

China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea and frequently lambastes the United States and its allies for freedom of navigation naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan have competing claims in the region.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in December agreed to put on hold a spiraling trade dispute of tit-for-tat import tariffs on hundreds of billions worth of goods.

Trump has imposed tariffs to pressure Beijing to change its practices on issues ranging from corporate espionage to market access and industrial subsidies. China has retaliated with tariffs of its own.

Fears have grown in recent months that the dispute is just one vector in a bilateral relationship that is fast cooling across the board, with top administration officials sharply criticizing Beijing for everything from human rights abuses and its influence operations in the United States.

The two countries are also at odds over regional security, including Washington’s overtures to the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.

China and the United States have in the past repeatedly traded barbs over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

China defends its construction as necessary for self-defense and says that it is rather Washington that is responsible for ratcheting up tensions in the region by sending warships and military plans close to islands Beijing claims. 

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