China says its navy warned US ships sailing near islands claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea to leave the area and that the US should stop such provocative acts.
- The US sent two guided-missile destroyers into the South China Sea, largely claimed by China
- Western powers and their allies have frequently sent warships through the region
- Six other South-East Asian countries harbour competing claims over the sea
The US guided-missile destroyers Preble and Chung Hoon travelled within 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometres) of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands, a US military spokesperson told Reuters, a move that could anger Beijing at a time of tense relations between the world’s two biggest economies.
The South China Sea is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the US-China relationship, which also include a trade war, US sanctions, and support for Taiwan — an island that Beijing considers to be a rogue breakaway territory.
President Donald Trump dramatically increased pressure on China to reach a trade deal by announcing on Sunday he would hike US tariffs on $US200 billion ($286 billion) worth of Chinese goods this week and target hundreds of billions more soon.
Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet, said that the “innocent passage” was “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law”.
The US military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and that they are separate from political considerations.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some South-East Asian navies operate.
China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea and frequently lashes out at the US and its allies over naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan all have competing claims in the region.
China and the US have repeatedly traded barbs in the past over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.
China has defended its construction as necessary for self-defence, and claimed it is the US that is responsible for ratcheting up tensions in the region by sending warships and military planes close to islands.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that the US ships entered the waters near the islets without the Chinese government’s permission, and the Chinese navy warned them to leave.
“The relevant moves by the US ships infringed upon Chinese sovereignty, and damaged the peace, security and good order of the relevant seas,” he said.
“China is strongly dissatisfied with this and resolutely opposed to it.”
Last month, China’s navy chief said freedom of navigation should not be used to infringe upon the rights of other countries.
The freedom of navigation operation comes weeks after a major naval parade marking 70 years since the founding of the Chinese navy.
The US sent only a low-level delegation to the Chinese navy anniversary events.