A US warship has been stranded on disputed islands. Attitude is seen as “ordeal” by Beijing. The United States says it will not allow territorial abuses in the region.

AFP / Getty Images

The passage of a US warship this Sunday less than twelve miles from an island claimed by China in the South China Sea is raising tension between the two countries. The USS Stethem sailed near the island of Triton in the archipelago of the Paracel Islands, an archipelago that China unilaterally annexed and is disputed by several countries, including Taiwan and Vietnam.

According to a statement from the Beijing Foreign Ministry, China immediately dispatched warships and fighter jets to the site to remove the US ship. In a statement issued on Sunday in the ministry’s website, the Chinese government considers the incident “a serious political and military provocation,” which put “facilities and personnel at risk on the Chinese islands” at risk. The US attitude, it reads in the statement, “violated Chinese and international law,” since those islands “are part of the Chinese territory.”

Hours after the incident, US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping talked on the phone about US-Asian relations. According to the BBC, it is not clear that the issue has been discussed by the two leaders. Quoted by the BBC, Chinese state television said that the Chinese president told Trump that there are “negative factors” that affect US-China relations.

In a statement, the White House did not confirm that the issue was addressed in the phone call, noting that the two leaders “reaffirmed their commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

This passage of the US ship was not innocent: since Donald Trump took office, this was the second military operation of the Freedom of Navigation program, a set of diplomatic measures – but also military ones – that the United States uses to challenge countries that consider To carry out territorial abuses.

The US has insisted on the idea that China can not claim sovereignty over uninhabited islands in disputed waters, although China assures it has the right to do so. By navigating within 12 nautical miles of the island – the limit imposed by the UN for territorial waters – the US shows that they do not recognize Chinese sovereignty on the spot.

In response, the Chinese government calls on the US “to stop these provocative operations immediately,” stressing that it will “use all necessary means to defend national sovereignty and security.”

The waters of the South China Sea, particularly the Paracel and Spratlys archipelagos, are heavily contested by Southeast Asian countries and China, as they are thought to be rich in oil and natural gas. At the same time, it is there that important commercial and fishing routes pass.

China has occupied the islands since at least 1947. Completely uninhabited, the islands harbor only infrastructures that are occupied by soldiers deployed to the site – but China denies it, stating that they are structures for civilians.

In addition, China has repeatedly built artificial islands in the region, to extend its territorial waters, something that the United States have come to criticize. Earlier this year, after a similar operation on the Spratlys Islands, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis pointed out that the United States does not accept that China will militarily occupy artificial islands.

“Negative factors” in relations between the two countries

The Trump administration had already aroused Beijing’s irritation by allowing, at the end of June, a sale of armaments, including guided bombs, missiles and torpedoes, for $ 1.3 billion ($ 1.1 billion) to Taiwan, a de facto independent island whose sovereignty is claimed by China. Taiwan separated from the rest of China at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Meanwhile, the Chinese do not recognize their independent government and consider the island a province of China.

The Chinese embassy had already reacted to the issue, saying that the sale of arms to Taiwan “will undermine mutual trust and cooperation between China and the United States.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with his American counterpart, Donald Trump, in the personal residence of the Republican billionaire in Florida in April. Bilateral relations seemed to have since rekindled. However, the honeymoon did not last long, especially as Trump changed the tone over China on Thursday over the North Korean nuclear issue.

Trump has announced for the first time sanctions against a Chinese bank accused by Washington of conducting illicit activities with North Korea, which develops a nuclear program and constantly threatens the United States.

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