The US military has said that Chinese military flights in the past week in the South China Sea “at no time” posed any threat to a US Navy aircraft carrier strike group in the region, but fit a pattern of destabilising and aggressive behaviour by Beijing.
“The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group closely monitored all People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) activity, and at no time did they pose a threat to US Navy ships, aircraft, or sailors,” the US military’s Pacific Command said in a statement.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Chinese aircraft did not come within 250 nautical miles (463km) of the US Navy vessels.
China claims almost all the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, where it has established military outposts on artificial islands. That claim has been declared as without legal basis by the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the sea.
The waters have also become a flashpoint in the Sino-US relationship.
The United States regularly accuses China of militarising the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbours who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.
‘Freedom of navigation’
China, in turn, regularly bristles at US military activity in the region, saying on Monday that such actions are not conducive to peace and stability in the region.
The US Navy regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations by ships close to some of the islands China occupies, asserting freedom of access to international waterways, and in accordance with the 2016 ruling of The Hague.
The US Pacific Command renewed its pledge to continue operations in the region, where it has maintained long-running military alliances with China’s neighbours.
“The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, demonstrating resolve through our operational presence throughout the region,” Pacific Command said.
The latest run-in came just a week after China passed a new law that, for the first time, explicitly allows its coastguard to fire on foreign vessels that threaten its “national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction”.
China’s coastguard is the most powerful force of its kind in the region.
On Friday, former Philippine justice and international maritime law expert, Antonio Carpio, told the Manila-based Rappler news website that the new China law renders the code of conduct being negotiated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as “dead on arrival”.
The Philippines has already formally lodged a diplomatic protest on the matter.
Carpio urged ASEAN to go to the UN and declare the new Chinese law as void.