The United States has sailed a warship near two of China’s man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea, the latest in a series of recent moves by the U.S. military in the strategic waterway and in the diplomatic arena amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on Sunday sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands as part of what the U.S. Navy calls “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs). The operations are meant to enforce the right of free passage in international waters under international law. The two islets are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Both outposts are among seven in the Spratly chain that China has built up, with some transformed from so-called high-tide elevations entitled to 12 nautical mile territorial seas into garrisons with massive radar installations, scores of buildings and military-grade runways.
A U.S. defense official told The Japan Times that the Decatur conducted the freedom of navigation operation under the right of “innocent passage.”
International law permits foreign warships to transit a country’s territorial waters on the basis of innocent passage without seeking prior permission, and the Chinese Navy has exercised that right off Alaska, among other locations.
However, Beijing demands that foreign naval vessels seek its permission before transiting Chinese territorial waters. The U.S. Navy regularly conducts FONOPs to challenge that requirement, as well as other maritime claims the United States considers excessive.
Washington says it conducts these operations throughout the world, though Beijing remains sensitive about FONOPs, which it has labeled “provocations.”
The last such U.S. operation took place in May near the Paracel chain in the South China Sea, and the military has denied they specifically target China.
The South China Sea includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. Beyond Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
“This FONOP challenged attempts by China, Taiwan and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights around the features they claim,” the U.S. defense official said. “Contrary to international law, these three claimants require prior permission or notification of transits through the territorial sea. No claimants were notified before this operation.”
Meanwhile, media reports said China had also canceled a high-level security meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis that had been planned for later this month.
The news, first reported Monday by The New York Times, said it was not clear if or when the meeting would be rescheduled or if was because of the broad range of disputes between Beijing and Washington on issues such as arms sales and military activity in the South China Sea and other waters around China.
China and the United States are also locked in a spiraling trade war that has seen them level increasingly severe rounds of tariffs on each other’s imports.
The U.S. Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the cancelation.
Sunday’s FONOP also came just days after the U.S. sent nuclear-capable B-52 bombers through the strategic waterway twice during the past week.
Last week, the Pentagon said the B-52s had transited over the South China Sea as part of “regularly scheduled operations designed to enhance our interoperability with our partners and allies in the region.”
Asked if the latest FONOP was related to the training last week, the defense official said Sunday that there was “no relationship” to the B-52 flights, adding that the freedom of navigation operations happen “independent of other events.”
Analysts, however, said there was likely some coordination.
According to Collin Koh, a specialist in regional naval affairs at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, B-52 overflights in the South China Sea have become a more common occurrence in recent years, adding another layer to U.S. moves in the area.
“I won’t discount the possibility of some kind of coordination on this front,” he said. “To challenge the Chinese claim, and more broadly to signal continued U.S. security commitments to the region, it’s insufficient to rely on purely one aspect of military power.”
The Chinese government did not immediately respond to the latest FONOP, but did on Thursday assail the U.S. bomber flights.
“China’s principle and standpoint on the South China Sea are always clear,” Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said, according to state-run media. “China firmly opposes the U.S. military aircraft’s provocation in the South China Sea, and will take all necessary measures.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang delivered a thinly veiled criticism of the U.S. the same day for using freedom of navigation and overflight as excuses to harm other countries’ sovereignty and security, disturbing regional peace and stability.
In late August, B-52s conducted similar training over the South China Sea. In addition to those exercises, the bombers integrated with the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group in the area.
And in June, after two U.S. B-52s flew near disputed islands in the South China Sea, China’s Foreign Ministry said no military ships or aircraft could scare China away from its resolve to protect its territory.
For its part, China has also bolstered training and patrols in the waterway.
On Saturday, state-run media reported that the Chinese military had sent fighter planes and bombers to conduct live-fire exercises at a range in the South China Sea. The short report said that dozens of fighters and bombers from the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force had conducted the drills to test pilots’ assault, penetration and precision-strike capabilities at sea.
In comments carried Sunday by the official Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted as saying that efforts to strengthen the military training and war preparedness of the armed forces and improve its capability to win wars must be bolstered.