A US destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation on Friday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, US officials told Reuters news agency.
The naval operation, which infuriated Beijing, was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as China’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the flashpoint waters.
The officials said the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and carried out maneuvering operations.
China is engaged in territorial disputes with its neighbors over the area. Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognized territorial limit.
The United States has strongly criticized China’s construction of islands and buildup of military facilities in the area, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement.
The latest American naval operation, the first since January, occurred just one day after US President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum that will target up to $60 billion in Chinese goods with tariffs, following a 30-day consultation period that starts once a list is published.
When asked about the operation by Reuters, the US military said its activities are carried out under international law and American forces operate in the region on a daily bases.
“We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” said Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for the US Pacific Fleet.
China’s Defense Ministry said two Chinese naval ships had been sent to identify the US ship and warn it to leave. It described the actions of the American ship as seriously harming China’s sovereignty and security, which threatens regional peace and stability, Reuters reported.
Such actions cause forces from both countries to come into close proximity and could easily cause a misjudgment or accident, and create serious political and military provocation for China, the ministry said.
China has always dedicated itself to protecting freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, but opposes “illegal and provocative” moves in the name of freedom of navigation, it added.