A US destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of a Beijing-claimed island in the South China Sea, according to a defence official. On Friday, the USS Mustin sailed close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, an island chain also claimed by the Philippines, the official told CNN.
The US Navy conducts regular Freedom of Navigation operations in the region with the unstated goal of challenging China’s huge, disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. “All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the US will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Lt. Cdr. Nicole Schwegman, US Pacific Fleet spokeswoman, said.
However, China’s Defence Ministry in a statement late Friday called the American behaviour a “serious political and military provocation against China. The Chinese military is firmly opposed to it”. It said two Chinese Navy ships “took immediate action to identify and verify the US ship, and warned and dispelled it”.
“China holds indisputable sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea,” CNN quoted ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang as saying in the statement. “By repeatedly sending military ships into these areas without authorization, the US has seriously harmed Chinese sovereignty and security, violated basic rules of international relations, and harmed regional peace and stability,” the spokesman said.
The ministry claimed that by carrying out these so-called infringements, the US had “damaged the atmosphere of military-to-military relations between the two countries, caused close encounters by air and naval forces, which could easily trigger miscalculation or even accidents at sea or in air”.
The Chinese government has laid claims to a large swathe of territory in the South China Sea region, overlapping areas claimed by other countries including Vietnam and the Philippines.
To reinforce its position, Beijing has reclaimed land and constructed military assets on a series of reefs in the Spratly and Paracel island chains.
In October 2017, the US Navy destroyer USS Chafee also sailed close to the Paracels, provoking a stern reaction from the Chinese Defence Ministry.