Seoul, South Korea CNN —
The United States and China’s military exchanged sharp words on Tuesday after a US Navy warship conducted the first Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea since the two powers’ leaders met earlier this month, to ease the tensions.
In a statement, the Chinese military claimed the USS Chancellorsville, a guided-missile cruiser, “illegally entered the waters near China’s Nansha Islands and reefs without Chinese government approval.”
According to China, the move shows that “the US is a true security threat generator in the South China Sea.” A statement by the US Navy’s 7th Fleet later Tuesday called the PLA’s account “false” and a continued misrepresentation of US actions in the South China Sea.
The encounter is the first in the South China Sea since US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met face-to-face on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia two weeks ago, according to a US Navy spokesman.
After that meeting, Biden said he and Xi had made progress in cooling tensions in some areas but had fallen far short of addressing the litany of issues that have helped sour US-China relations to the lowest point in decades.
China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea and most of the islands in it, including the Nansha Islands, known outside of China as the Spratlys.
They house military installations that China has built on features claimed by other nations around the South China Sea, including the Philippines, a US treaty ally, and Vietnam.
People’s Liberation Army Colonel Tian Junli, spokesman for the Southern Theater Command, said the PLA organized naval and air forces to pursue, monitor, warn and eventually drive off the US warship.
China says this action by the US military “seriously violates China’s sovereignty and security” and is “hard evidence that the US is seeking maritime hegemony and militarizing the South China Sea,” according to a statement on its official Weibo account .
In its statement, the US Navy said the US cruiser conducted the FONOP “in accordance with international law and then continued normal operations in waters where freedoms of the high seas apply.”
“The PRC’s behavior is contrary to the United States’ compliance with international law and our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms,” the US statement added.
Biden said he pointed this out to Xi when they met.
“It was clear to me that we will defend American interests and values, promote universal human rights and uphold the international order, and work in lockstep with our allies and partners,” Biden said.
Tuesday’s FONOP is an early sign that Biden is not backing down on that promise.
“The operation reflects our commitment to upholding the principle of freedom of navigation and the lawful use of the sea. The United States defends the right of every nation to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits, just as the USS Chancellorsville did here. Nothing the PRC (China) says otherwise will deter us,” the U.S. Navy statement said Tuesday.