The U.S. Navy sent a Japan-based warship within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of an island in the South China Sea Saturday that is claimed by Beijing and others in an effort to challenge what the Pentagon called “excessive maritime claims.”
The USS Curtis Wilbur, a guided-missile destroyer home-ported in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, conducted the so-called freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Triton Island, part of the Paracel island chain in the disputed South China Sea.
China, Vietnam and Taiwan all have rival claims to the island on which Beijing has a manned outpost. None of them were given prior notification.
A Pentagon spokesman said no Chinese military ships were in the vicinity when the warship passed near the island.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes. The U.S. and other regional allies — including Japan and Australia — have been critical of Beijing’s massive land-reclamation projects in the waters.
China’s Defense Ministry condemned the move late Saturday.
In a statement, spokesman Yang Yujun said the U.S. act “severely violated Chinese law, sabotaged the peace, security and good order of the waters, and undermined the region’s peace and stability,” according to the nation’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Labeling the move “a deliberate provocation,” Yang said Chinese troops on the islands as well as navy vessels and warplanes took immediate action, identified and verified the U.S. warship, and “warned and expelled it swiftly.”
Yang said that the U.S. operation was “very unprofessional and irresponsible for the safety of the troops of both sides, and may cause extremely dangerous consequences.” Chinese armed forces will take “whatever measures necessary to safeguard China’s sovereignty and security, no matter what provocations the U.S. side may take,” Yang added.
Earlier Saturday evening, China’s Foreign Ministry also condemned the move.
“The U.S. warship violated Chinese law and entered China’s territorial sea without authorization. The Chinese side conducted surveillance and vocal warnings to the U.S. warship,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
The U.S. Navy conducted a similar operation in October, when the USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of seven Chinese-made features in the disputed Spratly archipelago.
“The choice of Triton may have been influenced by the relatively lower operational risk than, say, Mischief Reef (in the Spratlys), which many were expecting would be the location for the next FONOP,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“By transiting close to Triton, an outlying feature in the Paracels, the U.S. Navy may have achieved tactical surprise by getting in and out before China could react with any of its navy ships or maritime law enforcement vessels,” Graham added.
Overall, Graham said, the repetition of an “innocent passage” operation will send a cautious message to Beijing that Washington is continuing to take a gradual and minimalist approach to countering excessive claims in the South China Sea.
“China may even see this as part of a tacit understanding not to raise the temperature,” Graham said.
Calls had been growing in Congress for the Obama administration to follow up on its October operation.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee, took the administration to task early last month for letting China continue to “pursue its territorial ambitions” in the region.
In Washington on Saturday, McCain said he was “encouraged” by news of the latest operation.
“This operation challenged excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and other nations under international law,” he said. “I continue to hope these operations will become so routine that China and other claimants will come to accept them as normal occurrences and releasing press statements to praise them will no longer be necessary.”
Last week, U.S. Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the Pacific Command, said that more operations in the South China Sea would not only continue but would also become more complex.
“I believe the Lassen did challenge some of China’s claims,” Harris said during a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“You will see more of these,” he said.