The USS Benfold is seen in the South China Sea during routine maritime operations. The destroyer sailed close to the Paracel Islands on Wednesday, where China claims ownership. File Photo by by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Deanna C. Gonzales/U.S. Navy/UPI
July 13 (UPI) -- The U.S. Navy on Wednesday stoked tensions in the South China Sea during its latest freedom of navigation transit of the disputed waterway.
The Navy said the USS Benfold, which belongs to the 7th Fleet, conducted the patrol not far from the Paracel Islands, where Beijing -- as well as Taiwan and Vietnam -- claims ownership.
Under international law "the ships of all states -- including their warships -- enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea," the Navy said in a statement.
"International law does not permit continental states, like [China], to establish baselines around entire dispersed island groups."
China, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands.
The U.S. patrol is the latest in a years-long series of transits through the South China Sea, a strategic waterway that sees about $3 trillion worth of trade items pass through each year. Beijing claims ownership of virtually the entire sea.
In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the U.S. military was "causing trouble and disturbing relations" with the maneuver.
Wang said the U.S. Navy infringed on Chinese sovereignty and claimed the accusation is backed by international law.
"China's stance is widely supported and understood by the international community, and any attempt to use this illegal ruling to infringe on China's sovereignty and interests is doomed to fail, and China will definitely respond in accordance with the law," Wang said according to the state-run Global Times.
The Navy's Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group began operating in the South China Sea on Wednesday for the first time in 2022. The group includes the Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan.
"Our presence in the South China Sea demonstrates America's commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific," Navy Capt. Fred Goldhammer, commanding officer of the USS Ronald Reagan, said in a statement.
"Every sailor onboard contributes to this important and enduring mission as we operate in this region, in accordance with international law to ensure that all nations can do the same."
Regular transits of the South China Sea by U.S. Navy vessels have created similar tensions between the United States and Beijing in recent years.
China warned of "serious consequences" earlier this year after the same destroyer, the USS Benfold, again sailed past the Paracel Islands.