WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy sailed a second ship through the South China Seas this week, further challenging Beijing’s claim to the disputed waters after it claimed to have expelled the first U.S vessel ship.
On Wednesday, the USS Bunker Hill, a guided-missile cruiser, conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the Spratly Islands area, one of the island chains where China continues to militarize.
One day earlier, the USS Barry, a guided-missile destroyer, carried out a similar FONOP in the Parcel Islands waters. The consecutive sailings is a rare FONOP maneuver Pentagon officials noted. It was triggered, in part, by China’s claim that its military chased the USS Barry from the Parcel Islands waters, which the Navy denied.
In a statement on the People’s Liberation Army website, the Chinese military announced it had mobilized sea and air assets to track and guide the US Barry away from “Chinese territorial waters.” The PLA charged the United States of “provocative acts” that “seriously violated international law and China’s sovereignty and security interests.”
The Navy has conducted FONOPs each month this year at a higher pace than in 2019, both in the South China Sea and through the Taiwan Strait. The Air Force conducts flyovers of the water for its role in underscoring the international aspect of the region.
However, back-to-back FONOPS are highly unusual. They reflect the new Pentagon strategy of “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability,” designed to keep adversaries less certain as to where U.S. military assets are operating.
That strategy was the Pentagon’s explanation as to why the US Air Force ended its Continuous Bomber Presence on the island of Guam earlier this month. It now will move B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s into the region with little predictable patterns, Pentagon officials said.
The sailings come after a series of provocative moves by China during the COVID-19 crisis, including chasing off fishing boats from other nations that were in international waters.
Last week China sought to further advance its territorial claims when it announced that the Paracel and Spratly islands, the Macclesfield Bank and their surrounding waters would be administered under two new districts of Sansha city, which China created on nearby Woody Island in 2012.
Beijing also announced official Chinese names for 80 islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea, including reefs, seamounts, shoals, and ridges, 55 of them submerged in water.