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The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sails through the South China Sea, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sails through the South China Sea, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Deanna Gonzales/U.S. Navy)

A top Navy official and the editor of a Chinese state-run newspaper traded digital quips Thursday, a day after a Navy destroyer cruised past a disputed reef in the South China Sea.

Navy Chief of Information Rear Adm. Charlie Brown and Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin got into the back-and-forth on Twitter over the USS Benfold’s pass within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

“Hopefully when Chinese warships pass through the Caribbean Sea or show up near Hawaii and Guam one day, the US will uphold the same standard of freedom of navigation,” Hu tweeted. “That day will come soon.”

Brown responded with recent examples of the Chinese navy sailing near U.S. waters, including a September 2015 incident in which the Chinese sailed within 12 miles of the Alaskan coast.

“The [U.S. Navy] sails around the world in accordance with international law. All countries benefit from freedom of navigation in accordance with international law,” Brown tweeted. “Unfortunately, not all who benefit from freedom of navigation would extend that same freedom to others.”

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s strike group was also present in the South China Sea on Wednesday and held exercises there Monday, according to the Navy.

China has built up Mischief Reef and constructed underground storage, radar and communications arrays and other improvements, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. The U.S. does not recognize any territorial claim to the reef, according to a 7th Fleet statement Wednesday.

The Chinese military also denounced the Benfold’s presence near the reef, according to the official China Military website on Wednesday. The Benfold entered the area without permission and was tracked, monitored and warned away by “air and naval forces” of Southern Theater Command, the site said.

Beijing has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands, according to command spokesman Col. Tian Junli, the site reported. The U.S. is a “security risk maker in the South China Sea” and the “biggest destroyer” of peace and regional stability, according to Tian’s statement.

The 7th Fleet responded Wednesday afternoon by saying the Benfold operated according to international law. It called Beijing’s statement “the latest in a long string” of actions intended to misrepresent the Navy’s operations and “assert excessive and illegitimate maritime claims.”

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