The US Navy’s guided-missile destroyer USS Milius has sailed through Beijing-claimed waters in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese claims, a day after China claimed it had driven the same warship away from the area. The US Navy called it a “freedom of navigation operation,” challenging the restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam on innocent passage. All three claim the Paracel Islands, a group of about 130 small atolls, which China calls the Xishas. The US statement also said the Milius challenged China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracels. The US conducts such operations regularly in the disputed South China Sea to challenge Beijing’s claims.
The South China Sea is a major potential flashpoint in the Asia Pacific due to its strategic location and the vast resources of fish, oil, and gas it holds. Additionally, about a third of global shipping, worth about $3.4 trillion in 2016, passes through the waterway. China claims almost all of the South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including many distant islands and inlets in the disputed body of water, many of which Beijing has militarized. Other claimants besides Taiwan and Vietnam include Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which has seen a UN tribunal rule in its favor in a dispute with Beijing over islands in the Spratly group. However, Beijing has rejected the UN ruling and built up military bases on those disputed islands, as it has done in the Paracels. The US regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) around the Paracels and the Spratlys to challenge China’s claims to the region, which Beijing has consistently criticized as violations of its sovereignty and security.