South China Sea crisis: US issues warning to Beijing near China occupied islands

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USS Ralph Johnson sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef and Cuarteron Reef in the highly contested waters. Beijing has claimed ownership of these islands and constructed military bases.

In a tweet, the US Pacific Fleet said: “USS Ralph Johnson steams near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday in the midst of a deployment to the region conducting US Navy maritime security operations for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The operation coincided with the announcement of US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, David Stillwell.

Mr Stillwell called out Beijing for claiming ownership in the disputed reigned and said they are undermining sovereign rights of other coastal states.

He said: “The United States rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12 nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands.

“This means that the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank, Luconia Shoals, Natuna Besar, or in the waters of Brunei’s EEZ.”

Mr Stillwell’s comments echo Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s accusations this week.

Mr Pompeo rejected China’s claims over the region arguing they are completely unlawful.

In a statement issued on Monday, Mr Pompeo said: “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.

“America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, constant with their rights and obligations under international law.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington hit back at Mr Pompeo’s words and called the accusations “unjustified”.

In a statement, they argued the US distorts the facts and international law while exaggerating the situation in the region in order to sow discord between the nations.

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Beijing accused Washington of “stirring up tension and inciting confrontation” in the region despite not being directly involved in the disputes.

Over recent months, the Communist nation has built military facilities in both the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands – increasing tensions in the region.

The US military has regularly challenged China’s occupation of these features with so-called Freedom of Navigation operations.

But Beijing has argued these operations violate its sovereignty over the region. 

China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile region as its sovereign territory.

However, the South China Sea faces rival ownership claims from other nations including Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Diplomatic relations between the nations are already extremely strained.

In May, the US Air Force and Marines conducted training exercises in the area with three submarines joining ships and aircraft in the nearby Philippine Sea.

The actions were thought to be a reaction to Chinese harassment of ships drilling for resources in nearby waters.

In April three US ships joined the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta and sailed to the region to demonstrate a commitment to keeping the sea open.

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