In what a Chinese official deemed a “provocation,” the US sent one of its guided-missile destroyers through Chinese claimed waters on Jan. 7, 2019, as the two nations kicked off trade talks in Beijing.
Reuters reported Jan. 3, 2019, that the talks, held between trade representatives from both countries, are meant to begin “positive and constructive discussions,” ultimately aiming to ease an ongoing and increasingly devastating trade war.
But just as the talks began Jan. 7, 2019, guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell sailed by the Paracel Islands, one of several hotly contested chains in the South China Sea, according to Reuters.
The same day, Chinese media aired a clip depicting a Chinese air force pilot issuing a warning to an unidentified aircraft in the air defense zone they imposed, although it is unclear when the encounter occurred.
Both encounters took place in areas where China has made sovereignty claims that are not internationally recognized. Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have all made competing claims in the South China Sea; the air defense zone was claimed in 2013 in an attempt to justify China’s grasp for control of the East China Sea, which has been disputed by Japan, according to the South China Morning Post.
A still image from footage of a Chinese fighter jet engaging a foreign aircraft over the East China Sea.
(China Central Television/YouTube)
Lu Kang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Jan. 7, 2019, that China had sent warships and aircraft in response, calling the McCampbell’s transit a violation of international law.
“We urge the United States to immediately cease this kind of provocation,” he said.
In a statement emailed to Reuters, Rachel McMarr, spokeswoman for the US Pacific Fleet, said the operation was not meant as a political statement or directed at any one country, but designed to “challenge excessive maritime claims.”
Known as “freedom of navigation” operations, ships and aircraft challenging excessive claims is not a new concept, nor one exclusively practiced by the US. In August 2018, a British amphibious ship sailed close to the Paracels, sparking a confrontation by a Chinese frigate and two aircraft. That same month, the US Defense Department published a map showing instances of Chinese vessels operating in established economic zones of other countries.
While US officials said there is no connection between the transit and the trade talks, Chinese spokesman Kang took a different approach.
“Both sides have a responsibility to create the necessary positive atmosphere for this,” he told state media, according to Reuters.
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