WASHINGTON – A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Tuesday, three U.S. officials said, even as President Donald Trump’s administration seeks China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters. It was not as provocative as previous ones carried out since Trump took office in January.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Chafee, a guided-missile destroyer, carried out normal maneuvering operations that challenged “excessive maritime claims” near the Paracel Islands, which are one of a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
Next month, Trump will make his first visit to Asia as president, including a stop in China, which he has been pressuring to do more to rein in North Korea. China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner.
Unlike in August, when a U.S. Navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, officials said the destroyer on Tuesday sailed close to but not within that range of the islands.
Twelve nautical miles mark internationally recognized territorial limits. Sailing within that range is meant to show the United States does not recognize territorial claims.
The Pentagon did not comment directly on the operation but said the United States carried out regular freedom-of-navigation operations and would continue to do so.
In the past, China has objected to such U.S. operations, saying they harm Chinese sovereignty and security.
China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Experts and some U.S. officials criticized former President Barack Obama for potentially reinforcing China’s claims by limiting its warships to “innocent passage” — effectively recognizing a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.
The U.S. 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 United States has said it would like to see more international participation in freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Trump’s trip to Asia will likely be dominated by the North Korean nuclear threat. He will also visit Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In recent weeks, North Korea launched two missiles over Japan and conducted its sixth nuclear test, all in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and may be fast advancing toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
Trump’s visit to China will reciprocate a trip to the United States made in April by President Xi Jinping. The U.S. president’s attempts to get Chinese help with North Korea have met with limited success so far but he has gone out of his way to thank Xi for his efforts.
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