Operations Specialist 2nd Class Brittany Sopolosky monitors surface contacts from the bridge of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold as the ship transits the South China Sea on Wednesday. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Deanna C. Gonzales/U.S. Navy
Sept. 8 (UPI) -- USS Benfold conducted a freedom of operation exercise near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to uphold the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea, the U.S. Navy announced Wednesday.
The U.S. 7th Fleet said it was undeterred by a statement by the Chinese military claiming "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly Islands and saying it had tracked, monitored and warned off USS Benfold from the area, Stars and Stripes reported.
"The PRC's statement about this mission is false," the U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement. "USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operation in international waters. The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle."
China, Vietnam and Taiwan claim the Spratly Islands, and portions of them also are claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
The exercise, held Wednesday within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef demonstrated that the low-tide elevation is not entitled to a territory sea, the Navy said.
The branch added that the statement from China was its latest effort "to assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea."
"All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms," the Navy statement said.
The USS Carl Vinson was training separately in the region, and neither warship provided notice to any country with claims in the South China Sea, 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Mark Langford told Stars and Stripes.
Wednesday's operation was USS Benfold's second freedom of operation exercise this year, after the guided missile destroyer moved through the Taiwan Straight near the Paracel Islands in July. China claimed it chased the ship away at that time, and the U.S. denied violations.
It is the latest among similar efforts to assert freedom of navigation in the region.
In December, China claimed it drove out naval destroyer USS John S. McCain from the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands. In February, USS Russell sailed by the island, disputing China's maritime claims in the region.
In June, China flew more than a dozen military transport planes over islands in the South China Sea, drawing a response from Malaysia, which sent a fighter jet to investigate.