Source: Associated Press

  • China’s military says it “warned off” a U.S. Navy destroyer it claimed was trespassing on Chinese territory.
  • China’s claim is actually false. The American warship was there to make a point.
  • The destroyer was conducting a freedom of navigation operation to establish that it did not consider the waters owned by China.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) claimed victory against the U.S. Navy yesterday, declaring it had “warned off” the guided missile destroyer USS Benfold while it was trespassing in Chinese waters. China’s lack of evidence, however, means the American ship was likely just making a short passage through waters the U.S. doesn’t even consider to be Chinese territory.

China’s Ministry of Defense said the PLA Southern Theater Command mobilized air and naval forces as the USS Benfold, shown above, entered what it described as the Chinese territorial waters. The incident took place in the Xisha Islands, otherwise known as the Paracel Islands, which lie about 200 miles southeast of the China’s Hainan Island and 300 miles from the Chinese mainland.

The Paracel Islands sit in the South China Sea, of which China claims approximately 90 percent. This includes waters previously considered international territory, meaning China is ignoring the competing claims of its neighbors.

China has enlarged many of the islets and shoals in the South China Sea. Though China originally described the effort as a means for improving mariner safety and scientific research, in reality, the country fortified the areas with military-grade airports, radar systems, and surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles.

Photo credit: DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d - Getty Images
Photo credit: DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d – Getty Images

“The naval and air forces of the PLA Southern Theater Command conducted tracking and monitoring on the US destroyer and warned it to leave,” China’s Ministry of Defense said.

The implication is the Benfold acceded to Chinese authority and promptly left. If the PLA didn’t actually want people to believe that happened, it probably wouldn’t have mentioned the incident. It isn’t advantageous for China to announce an incident in which a U.S. Navy warship ignored its authority. Yet … that’s almost certainly what happened.

Despite the involvement of its air and naval forces, China didn’t provide any evidence that military action compelled the American ship to leave. Furthermore, freedom of navigation operations typically involve U.S. Navy ships making relatively short, furtive voyages into disputed territory simply to make the point before leaving. By the time the Benfold received its warning, it was likely already sailing out of the area.

In response, the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet “rejected the Chinese statement as false, but gave no details of a possible encounter with PLA forces,” Military reports.

U.S. warships have made repeated freedom of navigation trips in the South China Sea. In February, USS John S. McCain made a similar passage near the Paracels and used nearly identical language to describe how the American ship was reportedly forced away.