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U.S. Navy Denies Chinese Claim of "Warning Away" American Destroyer

USS Milius
USS Milius under way on a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea (USN)

Published Mar 23, 2023 9:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has denied Chinese claims that an American destroyer was driven out of China's territorial waters, describing China's version of events as "false." 

On Thursday, the PLA's Southern Theater Command asserted that the destroyer USS Milius entered "Chinese territorial waters" near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Wednesday, without the Chinese government's authorization. (Prior authorization is not required for innocent passage through territorial seas, under UNCLOS.) 

In response, the command "organized naval and air forces, tracked, monitored and warned away the US warship," said PLA Senior Colonel Tian Junli in a statement.

"The move compromised the peace and stability in the region," said Junli. "The Southern Theater Command will stay on high alert and take any necessary measures to safeguard national sovereignty and security as well as the peace and stability in the South China Sea."

U.S. 7th Fleet denied the Chinese account of the event. 

“The PRC’s statement is false,” a 7th Fleet spokesperson said in a statement to USNI. “USS Milius (DDG 69) is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea and was not expelled."

According to 7th Fleet, USS Milius engaged in a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands in order to challenge "excessive claims." Specifically, the Navy said that the operation was designed to confront restrictions on innocent passage imposed by all of the claimants to the Paracels, along with China's claim to straight baselines enclosing the island group.

In the most recent iteration of its claim to sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea, the Chinese government says that it has the right to enclose the waters surrounding four Chinese-occupied island groups with straight baselines, thereby extending its reach far beyond UNCLOS' 12-mile limit. The new "Four Sha" straight-baseline theory is a departure  from China's previous "nine-dash-line" claim to historical ownership of the South China Sea.

USS Milius' transit is the latest in a series of U.S. Navy FONOPS designed to counter these new straight-baseline claims, according to 7th Fleet. 

"By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what the PRC can lawfully claim as its territorial sea, and that the PRC claimed straight baselines around the Paracel Islands are inconsistent with international law," 7th Fleet said in a statement.