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US Denies China Claim Over Destroyer   03/23 06:05


   BANGKOK (AP) -- The United States denied Chinese claims Thursday that its 
military had driven away an American guided-missile destroyer from operating 
around disputed islands in the South China Sea as tensions rise in the region 
between the two powers.

   The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said that a statement from China's Southern 
Theatre Command that it had forced the USS Milius away from waters around the 
Paracel Islands -- called Xisha by China -- was "false."

   "USS Milius is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea and was 
not expelled," said Lt. j.g. Luka Bakic in response to a query from The 
Associated Press.

   "The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever 
international law allows," Bakic added.

   Bakic would not comment on whether the ship had been operating in immediate 
proximity of the Paracel Islands, which are in the South China Sea a few 
hundred kilometers (miles) off the coast of Vietnam and the Chinese province of 
Hainan, or whether there had been any sort of a confrontation.

   China occupies the Paracel Islands, but they are also claimed by Taiwan and 

   Col. Tian Junli, a spokesperson for China's Southern Theatre Command, said 
earlier that the Chinese navy had followed and monitored the USS Milius after 
it "illegally entered China's Xisha territorial waters without approval from 
the Chinese government, undermining peace and stability in the South China Sea."

   He said that the Chinese navy and air force then forced away "the U.S. 
warship in accordance with the law."

   "The theatre troops will maintain a state of high alert at all times and 
take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, 
security as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea," he said.

   The incident comes amid growing tensions between China and the United States 
in the region, as Washington pushes back at Beijing's growingly assertive 
posture in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

   China claims ownership over virtually the entire strategic waterway, through 
which around $5 trillion in global trade transits each year and which holds 
highly valuable fish stocks and undersea mineral resources.

   The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have competing 

   The U.S. itself has no claims to the waters, but has deployed Navy and Air 
Force assets to patrol the waterway for decades and says freedom of navigation 
and overflight is in the American national interest.

   China has frequently responded angrily, accusing the U.S. of meddling in 
Asian affairs and demanding it leave the region where it has had a naval 
presence for more than a century.

   Following the incident with the USS Milius, Chinese Foreign Ministry 
spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing that "the U.S. should 
immediately stop such violations and provocations."

   "China will continue to take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard 
national sovereignty and security and maintain peace and stability in the South 
China Sea," he said.

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