Sunday, May 27, 2018

China Protests U.S. Warships in Disputed Waters
U.S. ‘sail-past’ near Paracel Islands comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade imbalances and North Korea policy

By Chun Han Wong
Wall Street Journal
May 27, 2018 1:31 p.m. ET

BEIJING—China criticized the U.S. for sending two warships into South China Sea waters that Beijing considers its territory, amid simmering bilateral tensions over trade and North Korea.

In separate statements, China’s foreign and defense ministries each expressed “firm opposition” to what they described as violations of Chinese sovereignty by the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, which sailed near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands on Sunday.

“The Chinese military took immediate action, deploying ships and aircraft to identify the U.S. vessels and issued warnings to drive them away,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said in a statement, which said that the two vessels made “unauthorized” entry into Chinese waters.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing expresses “strong displeasure” and urges Washington to cease “provocative actions that violate Chinese sovereignty and threaten China’s security.”

Neither statement provided details on the U.S. warships’ routes, though American military aircraft and vessels have in past maneuvered within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea while conducting so-called “freedom-of-navigation operations,” or fonops, to challenge what Washington sees as Beijing’s excessive claims in strategically and commercially vital waters.

According to a U.S. official, the two U.S. ships conducted an operation on May 26, coming within 12 nautical miles of islands in the Paracel chain. The vessels carried out operations near each of four islands there, including Triton, Woody, Tree and Lincoln, the official said. Details of the operation were first reported by Reuters.

The operation comes on the heels of the U.S. decision to rescind an invitation to China to participate in a naval exercise in the Pacific, known as Rimpac, but the fonop was planned several weeks prior to that decision, the official said.

China has said it respects freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but rejects violations of its sovereignty in the name of freedom of navigation.

Sunday’s sail-past comes amid a sensitive spell in U.S.-China relations, already marred by bickering over trade imbalances and international efforts to pressure North Korea into giving up nuclear weapons.

This past week, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that Beijing may have influenced Pyongyang into issuing recent hardline rhetoric that prompted his decision to scrap a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un —though Mr. Trump has since expressed hope that the meeting could still take place in June as originally planned.

The Paracels—where claims by China, Taiwan and Vietnam intersect—has been a focal point of a steady Chinese military buildup that military experts say bolsters Beijing’s ability to enforce its claims in the South China Sea.

U.S. satellite imagery has showed that Beijing installed radars and communication-jamming equipment on the Paracels and another South China Sea island chain, the Spratlys, over recent months, and that Chinese navy ships and military aircraft have made frequent visits.

Earlier this month, China’s air force said it had landed a heavy bomber on an island in Paracels—part of a military buildup that military experts say bolsters Beijing’s ability to enforce claims in the South China Sea.

The U.S. this month rescinded an invitation to China to participate in an American-led international military exercise in the Pacific Ocean scheduled for June, citing Beijing’s refusal to stop militarizing South China Sea islands.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, criticized the Pentagon’s decision, telling reporters during a State Department visit that barring China from the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise was “a very unconstructive move.”

Write to Chun Han Wong at

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