Washington, United States | AFP | A US warship on Thursday sailed close to an artificial island China has built up in the South China Sea, as part of a “freedom of navigation” operation, a US official said.
The USS John S. McCain destroyer sailed within six nautical miles of Mischief Reef, part of the disputed Spratly Islands south of the Paracel Islands.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official told AFP a Chinese frigate sent radio warnings at least 10 times to the USS McCain.
“They called and said ‘please turn around, you are in our waters,'” the official said.
“We told them we are a US (ship) conducting routine operations in international waters.”
The official said the interactions were all “safe and professional,” with the operation lasting about six hours from start to finish.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan and several southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The freedom of navigation operation — known in the military as a “FONOP” — is likely to provoke Beijing and was the third of its kind carried out by the United States since President Donald Trump took office.
It comes amid soaring tensions on the Korean Peninsula over Pyongyang’s missile program, and as the United States seeks to push China into more assertively restraining North Korea.
Trump this week warned North Korea it faced “fire and fury” if it continued to threaten America.
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Logan declined to comment on whether there had been a freedom of navigation sailing, but said: “We are continuing regular FONOPs, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future.”
“All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” he said.