HONG KONG — China’s military said Monday that a U.S. warship had “illegally” entered waters near the Second Thomas Shoal, an atoll in the South China Sea that is claimed by China, the Philippines and others.
China’s Southern Theater Command said it had sent a naval force to follow and monitor the USS Gabrielle Giffords, a littoral combat ship designed for operations near shore, accusing the United States of raising tensions in the region.
“The U.S. infringes China’s sovereignty and safety, disrupts regional peace and stability and violates international law and the basic norms of international relations,” a spokesperson said in a statement on the Southern Theater Command’s official WeChat account.
The U.S. Navy rejected China’s accusation, saying the USS Giffords “was conducting routine operations in international waters in the South China Sea, consistent with international law.”
“Every day the U.S. 7th Fleet operates in the South China Sea, as they have for decades,” deputy public affairs officer Kristina Wiedemann told NBC News via email. “The operations demonstrate we are committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
China lays claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, a vital shipping route that is rich in natural resources, despite a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague that its claims have no legal basis. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also have various territorial claims in the region that have given rise to disputes with China and each other.
China in particular has been accused of harassment and intimidation in its efforts to assert its sovereignty claims.
According to the 2016 ruling, which Beijing has never recognized, the Second Thomas Shoal lies entirely within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China and the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, have had multiple confrontations in the area in recent months as China tried to block the Philippines from resupplying a rusting warship that has served as a military outpost since it was intentionally run aground by the Philippine government in 1999.
Over the weekend, the Philippines deployed two coast guard vessels to another reef off its coast that it said China was “swarming” with more than 135 boats. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Monday that the reef was Chinese territory and that operations by Chinese fishing vessels in the area were “reasonable and lawful.”