China’s military on Tuesday claimed a U.S. guided missile cruiser "trespassed" in its waters near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, though the U.S. Navy decried the claims as "false."
"The guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville trespassed into the waters adjacent to islands and reefs of China's Spratly Islands without the approval of the Chinese government," China’s defense ministry said, adding that its "Southern Theater Command organized air and naval forces to track, monitor and warn it off."
Spokesman for the Southern Theater Command, Air Force Senior Colonel Tian Junli, claimed the cruiser "seriously violated China's sovereignty and security."
The U.S. Navy rejected China’s claims of "illegal behavior" and said it was acting within its rights under international law and was conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, where it has accused China of attempting to restrict "innocent passage."
"Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade, and unimpeded commerce," the Navy said in a statement.
The U.S. military argued that maintaining freedom of the seas was crucial to ensuring stability, global security and economic inclusiveness.
Ownership over the Spratly Islands is disputed with China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all laying claim to some or all of the islands and regional reefs.
The U.S. Navy argued that international law dictates that "ships of all states—including their warships—enjoy the right of innocent passage," and the U.S. does not need to request the permission of any nation to use the waterway.
"By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam," the statement continued, noting that U.S. forces operate in the area on a daily basis.
"The United States is defending every nation's right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Chancellorsville did here," the Navy said. "Nothing the PRC says otherwise will deter us."