When the U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ship Montgomery on Saturday skirted a disputed island in the South China Sea, Beijing scrambled two armed fighter-bomber jets and “expelled it” from the area, the state-run media reported.
Montgomery’s “freedom of navigation operation” was the first Navy FONOP this year in the South China Sea. The sea service conducts FONOPs to reemphasize that it’s an international byway, open to all shipping.
Beijing’s response also served as a reminder that China exerts large territorial claims across the Western Pacific and backs them up with a string of fortified atolls.
“On Jan. 25, a U.S. warship asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law,” Lt. Joe Keiley, a U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman, said in a statement.
The Montgomery’s FONOP “challenged the restrictions on innocent passage” in those waters imposed not only by China, but also Vietnam and Taiwan, Keiley said.
While Taiwan and Vietnam have asserted claims on the reefs and rocks, China is the only one that has seized, built up and fortified the atolls.
Keiley said Tuesday that China, Vietnam and Taiwan request permission or notification “before a foreign military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through territorial seas.”
“By engaging in innocent passage without giving notification or asking for permission, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan,” Keiley said. “The United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions.”
That’s not the way China saw it.
Quoting the spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper reported that air and naval forces “tracked down and monitored the vessel’s course, verified and identified the vessel and expelled it” on Saturday, which was a day set aside to commemorate the nation’s traditional Spring Festival.
Calling the FONOP a “flagrant attempt at navigation hegemony,” the military spokesman accused the U.S. Navy of provocatively and intentionally disrupting the celebration and pointed to similar American operations during the 2019 Spring Festival in the Spratly Islands and near the Paracel Islands during China’s Mid-Autumn Festival in September.
Global Times reported that “two loaded fighter bombers of a Navy aviation brigade headed to the target area and conducted alert patrol missions on Saturday morning” in response to Montgomery’s FONOP.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters on Monday that China dispatched planes and ships to demand that the guided-missile destroyer McCampbell leave waters around the Paracel Islands.
The Navy has conducted 23 FONOPs in the South China Sea since 2015, according to Lt. j.g. Rachel McMarr, a spokeswoman for U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Seven FONOPs were conducted in 2019, up from five in 2018 and six in 2017.
Three FONOPs took place in 2016 and two were conducted in 2015, McMarr said.
A Chinese military outpost, Fiery Cross features a 10,000-foot runway and hardened port facilities.
Beijing has dotted the Spratlys with anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles in recent years as well, according to a 2019 Pentagon report.
Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs are three of the largest Chinese outposts in the Spratly Islands, with each boasting “extensive military infrastructure,” including aviation facilities, ports, fixed-weapons positions and barracks, according the Pentagon report.
By 2015, China’s island reclamation projects had added more than 3,200 acres of land to seven sites it occupies in the Spratlys.