U.S. destroyer challenges China’s unlawful, excessive claim of South China Sea 

On July 16 (local time), USS Benfold (DDG 65) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law. At the conclusion of the operation, USS Benfold exited the excessive claim and continued operations in the South China Sea. 

This freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Vietnam, and Taiwan.

Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.

The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant. The international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations. The international community has an enduring role in preserving the freedom of the seas, which is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity.

The United States upholds freedom of navigation for all nations as a principle. As long as some countries continue to claim and assert limits on rights that exceed their authority under international law, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all. No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms.

The PRC, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines each claim sovereignty over some or all of the Spratly Islands. In violation of international law, the PRC, Vietnam, and Taiwan purport to require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel engages in “innocent passage” through the territorial sea of the relevant feature. 

Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all states –including their warships –enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. International law does not permit the unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage, so the United States challenged these requirements. 

By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage is not subject to such restrictions.

Photo credit: Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Arthur Rosen. Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) conducts routine underway operations. Benfold is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

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