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China warns US vessels to leave disputed waters

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China's military announced Sunday that it had despatched warships to challenge two US Navy vessels that sailed through waters in the South China Sea that China claims as its own.

[BEIJING] China's military announced Sunday that it had despatched warships to challenge two US Navy vessels that sailed through waters in the South China Sea that China claims as its own.

The Chinese confronted the US ships and warned them to leave, the Ministry of National Defense said in a statement posted on its website, but other details of the encounter were not immediately clear.

The US vessels — the Higgins, a destroyer, and the Antietam, a cruiser — passed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, an archipelago in the northern part of the disputed waters of the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam.

The chief spokesman for China's Ministry of National Defense, Senior Col Wu Qian, said that the United States "gravely violated Chinese sovereignty".

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The high-seas confrontation, while not unprecedented, came as tensions have been rising between the United States and China on a number of fronts, from trade to the on-again-off-again talks with North Korea over its nuclear programme.

In recent months, China has appeared more determined to defend its claims in the South China Sea, reinforcing and arming its bases in the Paracel Islands and farther south in the Spratly Islands, even though the various islands, reefs, shoals and other outcroppings are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and others.

On May 18, China announced that it had for the first time landed its H-6K strategic bomber on an outpost in the Paracels, Woody Island. Earlier in the month, the United States also formally protested the deployment of missiles and radar equipment on three artificial islands China has built in the Spratly Islands.

US officials accused Beijing of breaking a promise the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, made in 2015 when he said China did not intend to militarise the disputed territories. In retaliation for the deployment, the Pentagon last week rescinded an invitation for China to participate in a multinational naval exercise this summer near Hawaii.

The two US warships involved on Sunday were carrying out manoeuvre known as "freedom of navigation operations". The operations, which the Obama administration curtailed somewhat but which picked up again under US President Donald Trump, are intended to exercise what the United States says are its rights under international law.

China, whose claims on the islands in the Paracel and Spratly Islands are not recognised, argues that passage within 12 nautical miles constitutes a violation of the country's territory under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In April, Chinese ships and aircraft challenged three vessels of the Australian navy as they traveled to port calls in Vietnam.

"The United States naval vessels Antietam and Higgins entered without Chinese government permission into territorial waters" around the islands, which China calls the Xisha Islands, Mr Wu said in the statement.

China's military, he said, would be "firm and unwavering in its determination to strengthen sea and air operational preparedness construction" on the islands.

The two ships passed within 12 miles of four islands — Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody — according to a US defence official.

A spokesman for the US 7th Fleet, Cmdr Clay Doss, did not discuss the details of the Chinese challenge but said that in 2017, US warships conducted similar operations in the waters of 22 different countries, including allies of the United States.

The operations "are not about any one country", he said in a statement, "nor are they about making political statements".

NYTIMES