US warship sails close to Panatag
China’s foreign ministry has accused a US warship of entering what it claims as its territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea without permission and said it would take “necessary measures” to ensure its sovereignty is protected.
The guided missile destroyer USS Hopper came within 22.22 kilometers (12 nautical miles) of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea on Wednesday evening, a ministry spokesperson said on Saturday.
China calls the shoal Huangyan Island, a disputed rock outcrop in the West Philippine Sea, part of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines as well as China. It is called Panatag Shoal by Manila and lies 230 km west of Zambales province.
This means it is within the 370-km exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
China’s Navy ordered the vessel to withdraw after determining its identity, foreign ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, said in a news briefing in Beijing.
In Manila, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was largely mum on the US warship’s action.
“We do not have a say on whatever the Americans do in the South China Sea,” Lorenzana said in a text message to the Inquirer.
‘Freedom of navigation’
Asked whether the Department of National Defense was aware of the USS Hopper’s presence in the region, he said: “They do not inform us beforehand of their activities there.”
A critic of the Duterte administration’s policy in the West Philippine Sea, Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, said the US warship was likely on routine “freedom of navigation” exercise in the region.
The Philippine government, he said, is no longer interested in patrolling the waters around Panatag Shoal. “We only patrol that area once a month,” he said.
Lu said the warship violated China’s sovereignty and security interests and threatened the safety of its vessels and personnel in the vicinity.
The United States has criticized China for constructing islands and military installations in the region, saying they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.
US vessels have conducted a series of “freedom of navigation” patrols in the region.
In a separate statement on Saturday, China’s defense ministry said the repeated dispatch of US warships to the region was “undermining regional peace and stability” and hurting bilateral relations.
The encounter between the two navies adds to long-standing tension between the US and China in waters contested by at least six nations, including Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The shoal is seen as a strategic point among the claimants because it is within easy striking distance of US military personnel partnering with the AFP in the Philippines. A military outpost there could also stop other navies from using a northeast gateway to the area.
Beijing and Manila have tussled over the shoal on and off since 2013, when Manila took its case to an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands.
The tribunal ruled last year that the controversial “nine-dash line,” which underpins Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea, had no legal basis.
President Duterte had said that he did not expect China to build on Panatag Shoal because of Manila’s warming ties with Beijing.
The US Navy’s behavior broke basic protocols of international relations, Lu said.
“China will take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty,” he said, adding that Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty over Huangyan Island” and its adjacent waters.
Lu did not say what measures China would take if the US Navy sailed again near the islets and shoals it claims in the South China Sea.
“China respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea for all countries in accordance with international law, but resolutely opposes any country’s move to impair China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of freedom of navigation and overflight,” Lu said. —Xinhua New Agency, with reports Jaymee T. Gamil, DJ Yap, and the wires
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