BANGKOK — The United States denied Chinese claims Thursday that its military had driven away an American guided-missile destroyer from operating around disputed islands in the South China Sea, in an incident that comes as tensions in the region between the two powers continue to rise.
The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said that a statement from China's Southern Theatre Command that it had forced the USS Milius away from waters around the Paracel Islands — called Xisha by China — was “false.”
“USS Milius is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea and was not expelled,” said Lt. j.g. Luka Bakic in response to a query from The Associated Press.
“The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Bakic added.
Bakic would not comment on whether the ship had been operating in immediate proximity of the Paracel Islands, which are in the South China Sea a few hundred kilometers (miles) off the coast of Vietnam and the Chinese province of Hainan, or whether there had been any sort of a confrontation.
China occupies the Paracel Islands, but they are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
Col. Tian Junli, a spokesman for China’s Southern Theatre Command, said earlier that the Chinese navy had followed and monitored the USS Milius after it “illegally entered China's Xisha territorial waters without approval from the Chinese government, undermining peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
He said that the Chinese navy and air force then forced away "the U.S. warship in accordance with the law.”
"The theatre troops will maintain a state of high alert at all times and take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
The incident comes amid growing tensions between China and the United States in the region, as Washington pushes back at Beijing's growingly assertive posture in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
China claims ownership over virtually the entire strategic waterway, through which around $5 trillion in global trade transits each year and which holds highly valuable fish stocks and undersea mineral resources.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have competing claims.
The U.S. itself has no claims to the waters, but has deployed Navy and Air Force assets to patrol the waterway for decades and says freedom of navigation and overflight is in the American national interest.
China has frequently responded angrily, accusing the U.S. of meddling in Asian affairs and demanding it leave the region where it has had a naval presence for more than a century.