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International Relations

South Korean warship sails by disputed South China Sea islands

Maneuver in mid-September came amid escalation of operations by US allies

A 2016 satellite image of the Crescent Group of island, part of the disputed Paracel Islands located in the South China Sea.   © Kyodo

BEIJING/SEOUL (Dow Jones) -- A South Korean warship sailed close to disputed islands in the South China Sea this month, entering what Beijing sees as its territorial waters without its permission, in a maneuver that piqued Chinese officials.

The South Korean navy destroyer Munmu the Great was taking refuge from a typhoon and not conducting a "freedom-of-navigation" operation challenging maritime claims, a South Korean government official said. The ship, returning from antipiracy operations off the coast of Somalia, didn't have time to seek permission, the official said, declining to comment on whether Seoul regarded the waters as China's.

A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said the ship broke Chinese law by entering its 12-nautical-mile-wide territorial sea around the Paracel Islands without seeking its prior permission, but said Beijing accepted South Korea's explanation.

The maneuver, which took place on or around Sept. 16, nonetheless caused concern within China's government and military as it came amid an escalation of operations by U.S. allies in the South China Sea, according to people familiar with the incident.

A British warship carried out a freedom-of-navigation patrol in August near the Paracels, which are controlled by China but claimed by Vietnam. French navy ships conducted a patrol in May near the Spratly Islands, where China's claims overlap with those of several other governments.

U.S. and allied officials have grown increasingly concerned in recent years over Beijing's efforts to assert its claims to most of the South China Sea, including by building seven artificial islands in the Spratlys and expanding military outposts in the Paracels.

South Korea, however, has largely steered clear of the South China Sea issue, despite having its own territorial dispute with Beijing in the Yellow Sea over economic rights and ownership of a submerged rock, internationally known as the Socotra Rock.

The South Korean ship's maneuver around the Paracels took place in the midst of Typhoon Mangkhut, which hit the South China Sea around Sept. 15.

"We have taken this up with the South Korean side," said Senior Col. Ren Guoqiang, the Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman.

He said the South Korean ship spent about 10 minutes traversing Chinese territorial waters while avoiding the typhoon and didn't conduct any other military operations.

"From a humanitarian point of view, we can accept their explanation," Sen. Col. Ren said. Still, he added, the ship broke Chinese law by "entering the territorial sea without the permission of the Chinese government."

China's foreign ministry officials also met South Korean embassy representatives to discuss the matter, according to one person familiar with the matter. Neither China's nor South Korea's foreign ministry immediately responded to requests for comment.

International law permits foreign warships to transit a country's territorial waters on the basis of "innocent passage" without seeking prior permission, and the Chinese navy has exercised that right off Alaska and in the English Channel.

However, Beijing demands that foreign navy ships seek its permission before transiting Chinese territorial waters. The U.S. Navy regularly conducts freedom-of-navigation operations to challenge that requirement, as well as other maritime claims Washington considers excessive.

China usually responds by sending its own ships and aircraft to track the foreign vessels and demand that they leave the area.

Senior Col. Ren said the Chinese military would step up its efforts to respond to such activities, and accused Britain and France of undermining recent efforts to stabilize the situation in the South China Sea.

"We are firmly opposed to other countries taking provocative actions in the name of freedom of navigation and we are against those countries showing their existence in the South China Sea," he said.

"The Chinese military will fulfill its defense responsibility and strengthen its patrols in the region to safeguard our sovereignty and security and maintain regional peace and stability." 

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