USS Benfold Catches China's Attention With Back-to-Back FONOPs
The sailors of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Benfold have been drawing considerable attention from Beijing this past week. Benfold has carried out two freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) past Chinese-occupied positions in the South China Sea in the span of four days, drawing protests from China's foreign ministry.
The U.S. Navy conducts a slow but steady pace of FONOPs in the South China Sea, demonstrating U.S. presence and challenging China's sweeping maritime claims in the region. However, it is rare to see two of these transits in a week.
On July 13, USS Benfold conducted a transit through waters near the Paracel Islands, which are occupied by China but claimed by several nations. On July 16, Benfold conducted a transit through areas claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan in the Spratly Islands, demonstrating the freedom to navigate through "unlawful and sweeping maritime claims."
Beijing responded to the back-to-back transits with more than the usual amount of protest. According to Chinese state-owned opinion outlet Global Times, "the US military's move severely violated China's sovereignty and security, badly harmed peace and stability in the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and the principles of international relations."
The PLA Navy's Southern Operational Command released photos of the July 16 transit, the first time that China has ever published images of a U.S. Navy vessel engaged in a FONOP mission.
In a statement, U.S. 7th Fleet responded directly to the Chinese government. "The United States is defending every nation’s right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing the PRC says otherwise will deter us," 7th Fleet wrote.
USS Benfold is no stranger to operations in the South China Sea. She previously conducted high-profile FONOP missions in July 2021, September 2021 and January 2022.