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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S. Navy denies China’s claim that it drove away destroyer

A general view shows the USS Milius DDG69, a multi-mission capable guided missile destroyer ship docked at the Manila south harbour on August 18, 2012.   (Noel Celis/AFP/GettyImages/TNS)
By Kari Lindberg Bloomberg News Bloomberg News

The U.S. Navy hit back at the Chinese military over a claim it drove off a destroyer sailing in the South China Sea, the latest in a series of disputes between the nations.

The USS Milius “illegally entered Chinese waters without the Chinese government’s approval,” China’s Southern Theater Command said in a statement on social media Thursday. “The command organized naval and air forces to follow, monitor and warn it to drive it away in accordance with the law.”

The U.S. 7th Fleet disputed that version of events, saying in an email to Bloomberg News that the “statement is false.” The vessel was “conducting routine operations in the South China Sea and was not expelled. The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

The two nations sparred last month over allegations a Chinese spy balloon flew over the U.S. and as Washington tries to deprive China of advanced chip technology to slow its military expansion. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has accused the U.S. of trying to suppress his nation’s development.

Beijing asserts it has rights to more than 80% of the South China Sea, whose other claimants are the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei. The U.S. refuses to recognize China’s claim, and regularly conducts what it calls freedom of navigation operations to challenge what the Defense Department terms “excessive maritime claims.”

The U.S. Navy didn’t describe the Milius’ trip as one of those operations. That means China may be playing closer attention and publicizing routine movements by the U.S. military that in the past didn’t draw attention. The U.S. Navy last announced a FONOP in the South China Sea in November.

Late last year, Western officials said China was building up several unoccupied land features in the sea – an unprecedented move they said was part of Beijing’s long-running effort to strengthen claims to disputed territory in a region critical to global trade.