As tensions over the disputed Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea continue to linger, the Chinese military said on December 4 that a US Navy warship illegally entered waters adjacent to the atoll, which has been a matter of contention between China and the Philippines.
Accusing the US Navy of infringing upon China’s sovereignty, the spokesperson for China’s Southern Theater of Operations said in a statement: “The US seriously undermined regional peace and stability.”
The US Navy said that the littoral combat ship of the Independence class, USS Gabrielle Giffords, was carrying out regular operations in the South China Sea international seas following international law.
The US Navy said in an official statement: ”Every day, the US 7th Fleet operates in the South China Sea, as they have for decades. These operations demonstrate our commitment to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” The US Navy regularly conducts its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South and East China Seas, a move frequently criticized by China.
The US ship entered waters close to the Second Thomas Shoal, also known as the Renai Reef, which is a portion of the Spratly Islands, according to the Chinese military. The two countries’ warships have seen their fair share of engagement on multiple occasions, with Beijing condemning it as a US provocation.
#USNavy Littoral Combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords conducted a FONOP operation today, Dec 4th near Second Thomas Shoal.
— Indo-Pacific News – Geo-Politics & Defense News (@IndoPac_Info) December 4, 2023
For instance, the Chinese navy released video footage recorded in August this year showing USS Ralph Johnson conducting maneuvers near a Chinese task group in the South China Sea. It was labeled as provocative by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
In June, the warships of the two navies were involved in a near-collision, with the US accusing Chinese warships of sailing in front of an American vessel that was conducting a joint exercise with the Canadian navy in the Taiwan Strait.
The recent incident of a US warship sailing near the disputed Thomas Shoal is much more significant, given that the atoll has remained in the headlines for several weeks. As Philippine ships have attempted to provide their battleship in Thomas Shoal with fuel and food, Chinese ships have been accused of harassing them on several occasions.
While on a resupply mission around the Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippines accused Chinese coastguard warships of “intentionally” colliding with their vessels. China, on the other hand, denied the allegation and said that the Philippine vessels “bumped dangerously” with the coast guard and “Chinese fishing vessels” that were fishing in the area. Since then, several reports of instances similar to that have surfaced.
The Philippines says a Chinese coast guard vessel endangered the lives of crew members on a resupply ship during a collision in the South China Sea. pic.twitter.com/g7tZW6JJF8
— TaiwanPlus News (@taiwanplusnews) October 22, 2023
As high-voltage engagements and bellicose rhetorics become more frequent between the two claimants, the sailing of a US Navy ship is bound to trigger the Chinese. The United States is a vital ally of the Philippines, and US President Joe Biden warned China in October that the US would defend the Philippines in case of any attack in the disputed South China Sea.
While the UN tribunal ruling in 2016 said that the Second Thomas Shoal lies in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, China has rejected the judgment and continues to claim the atoll as its own.
Two UK Ships Attacked By Iran-Backed Militias
Meanwhile, in another corner of the world, at least two ships of British origin came under attack in the Red Sea as hostilities continued to intensify in the region.
US military chiefs announced late on December 3 that missiles had struck two ships belonging to the United Kingdom in the Red Sea. The commercial vessels Unity Explorer and Number 9 were hit by rockets that were fired from the Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.
There were no confirmed injuries. However, both vessels were said to have sustained minor damage. The Houthis in Yemen are backed and militarily supplied by Iran, which itself has warned of a wider regional conflict if Israel does not stop the bombing of Gaza.
According to US Central Command, the American destroyer Carney reacted to distress calls. It offered aid after missile and drone launches from Houthi-controlled areas that jeopardized the safety of commercial ships sailing in the Red Sea and their crew.
Without providing more details, a military spokesman for the group said that the two ships belonged to Israel and they were attacked after they disregarded warnings.
⚡Yemen Houthis attacked a US warship and a UK ship in the Red Sea.
The Houthis are on fire.
Confirmation by Pentagon:
The USS Carney, a US Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, along with other commercial ships are under attack in the Red Sea.
— Megatron (@Megatron_ron) December 3, 2023
According to Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, there was no relationship between Israel and the two ships. The event that has been reported comes after a string of strikes in Middle Eastern waters after Israel and the militant Palestinian organization Hamas declared war on each other on October 7.
In November, the Houthis, Iran’s allies, took control of a cargo ship with ties to Israel. The organization, which rules the majority of Yemen’s coast along the Red Sea, has threatened to target more Israeli warships after firing ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel in the past.
The spokesperson of the Houthis group stated in a broadcast that the recent strikes were in response to appeals from Islamic countries to support the Palestinian people as well as demands from the Yemeni people.
The US military said the Carney shot down three drones as it helped the commercial vessels. It was not clear if the warship was a target. “We also have every reason to believe that these attacks, while launched by the Houthis in Yemen, are fully enabled by Iran,” the statement said.