U.S. Navy Destroyer USS Ralph Johnson Sails Near Disputed Spratly Islands in South China Sea

The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114) has sailed near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on July 14.

According to the Navy statement, Ralph Johnson is “deployed conducting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts for a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

The Spratly Islands is a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea. Composed of islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs, sometimes grouped in submerged old atolls, the archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Vietnam.

USS Ralph Johnson Conducts Maritime Operations Near Spratly Islands
The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114) steams near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on July 14, 2020. (U.S. Navy Photo by MC3 Anthony Collier)

The Spratly Islands dispute is an ongoing territorial dispute between China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, concerning “ownership” of the Spratly Islands. All except Brunei occupy some of the maritime features.

In April, the Navy’s Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) sailed near the disputed islands.

On July 13, the United States government released a statement on its position on the maritime claims in the South China Sea. The statement said that China’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful.

Excerpt from the statement:

The PRC cannot lawfully assert a maritime claim – including any Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims derived from Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands – vis-a-vis the Philippines in areas that the Tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ or on its continental shelf. Beijing’s harassment of Philippine fisheries and offshore energy development within those areas is unlawful, as are any unilateral PRC actions to exploit those resources. In line with the Tribunal’s legally binding decision, the PRC has no lawful territorial or maritime claim to Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal, both of which fall fully under the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction, nor does Beijing have any territorial or maritime claims generated from these features.

As Beijing has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands (without prejudice to other states’ sovereignty claims over such islands). As such, the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful.

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