The USS Benfold is seen in the Andaman Sea off the coast of the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Thursday, the Chinese government said the warship illegally entered disputed waters in the South China Sea. File Photo by James Pinsky/U.S. Navy/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 20 (UPI) -- The Chinese government said Thursday that it spotted a U.S. warship illegally crossing waters in the South China Sea -- an accusation that the Pentagon denies.
Beijing said that it spotted the USS Benfold, a guided-missile destroyer, enter into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands -- and issued a stern warning for the U.S. military.
"We solemnly demand that the U.S. side immediately stop such provocative actions," a Chinese military spokesman said, according to The Guardian. "Otherwise it will bear the serious consequences of unforeseen events."
China said the ship entered territorial waters without approval, but the Pentagon said the claim is "false" and that the vessel's crossing breached no international law.
Vietnam, China and Taiwan all claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, a chain of 130 small coral islands and reefs that are also known as the Xisha Islands.
U.S. officials say that vessels regularly perform "freedom of navigation" missions in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese territorial claims of the waterway.
"The United States is defending every nation's right to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did this week," the U.S. Navy said, according to The Guardian. "Nothing [China] says otherwise will deter us.
"The [Chinese] statement is the latest in a long string of ... actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its south-east Asian neighbors in the South China Sea."
Disputes between the United States and China over sovereignty in the South China Sea are nothing new. A carrier strike group entered the waters last September just weeks after Beijing accused the U.S. military of "intentional provocations" there.