China protested that the United States violated its national sovereignty when the US Navy’s 7th Fleet’s guided-missile destroyer showed its presence in the Spratly islands that the Philippines long considers its exclusive economic zone but now claimed by China as its own. 

The US Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement that the Chinese government’s accusation they trespassed without seeking permission was “false” and part of that nation’s campaign to misrepresent lawful maritime navigation.

The US has vowed to maintain its presence in the West Philippine Sea precisely to discourage the “aggressive actions” of China in the area.  

The USS Benfold took part in a 7th Fleet “Freedom of Navigation Operation” about 12 nautical miles off Mischief Reef on September 8, according to the US Navy.

“The PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) statement about this mission is false. USS Benfold conducted this (operation) in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters,” the statement said.

The operation came just days after China passed a law demanding foreign vessels to submit notice before entering waters it claimed in the disputed island chain. The Navy said it did not provide any such notice in defiance of the Chinese law. 

A spokesman for China’s People Liberation Army (PLA), senior colonel Tian Junli, said in the state-run newspaper Global Times that it “warned off” the USS Benfold after it “trespassed” into areas adjacent to the reef.

Tian was quoted as saying the PLA Southern Theater Command would stay on high alert to assert its sovereignty over the islands and surrounding waters, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

US Vice-president Kamala Harris travelled to Vietnam in August to rally their support in combating China’s “bullying” in the South China Sea and pressure the country into following the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As part of the naval operation, neither the USS Benfold nor the USS Carl Vinson and its strike group training elsewhere gave notice to any country claiming ownership to parts of the sea, 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Mark Langford said.

Langford said it was the navy’s seventh operation of its kind so far in 2021 while aprevious action occurred in the Spratly Islands last February.

China has turned reefs into islands by reclaiming land and building military infrastructure throughout the Spratly Island chain, including on Mischief Reef.

The 7th Fleet said in its statement that the reef is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law as it has a low-tide elevation in its natural state and is submerged at high tide.

“The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law,” the statement said.