Asia Pacific

U.S. destroyers sail in disputed South China Sea as trade tensions simmer

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. sent two warships close by islands claimed by Beijing in the disputed South China Sea on Monday, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said, as American negotiators arrived in the Chinese capital for talks aimed at resolving a trade spat between the two powers.

A spokesman for the 7th Fleet told The Japan Times that the guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble had “conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea,” with the two vessels sailing “within 12 nautical miles” (22 km) of the Spratly Islands.

The mission was conducted “in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” 7th Fleet spokesperson Lt. Joe Keiley said.

While the 7th Fleet was not specific about what features the two destroyers had sailed near, Reuters, quoting an unidentified U.S. official, reported that they had passed by Mischief Reef, which is occupied by China but also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Mischief Reef has undergone a massive land reclamation project and is home to a military-grade airfield. Recent reports have also said the islet has emplacements for missiles, extensive storage facilities and a range of installations that can track satellites, foreign military activity and communications.

Beijing has constructed a series of military outposts throughout the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also routinely operate.

China says its facilities are for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the waters.

China’s Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the latest FONOP, blasting the U.S. ships for entering what it called its “territorial seas … without permission.”

Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that the Chinese had side immediately identified the U.S. ships and warned them to leave, adding that China would continue to take necessary measures to safeguard itself.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and China remain locked in a trade war, with the two sides attempting to reach a deal ahead of a March 1 deadline, when U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports are scheduled to increase to 25 percent from 10 percent.

Preliminary discussions by lower-level U.S. negotiators were to be held in Beijing on Monday, before U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin step in for the main event on Thursday and Friday.

Some observers say the ramped-up pace of U.S. FONOPs could be intended to heap pressure on Beijing amid the ongoing trade talks.

The U.S. has denied this is the case.

“We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future,” the 7th Fleet’s Keiley said. “FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

He noted that U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region “on a daily basis,” including in the South China Sea, and that the United States “will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.”

In mid-January, U.S. and British warships conducted military exercises in the South China Sea for the first time since China fortified its islands there. The U.S. has also ramped up its solo FONOPs, including an operation early last month that saw one of its destroyers pass near the Paracel Island chain, north of the Spratlys, in the South China Sea.

Just a day after that operation, Chinese state-run media announced that Beijing’s so-called carrier killer anti-ship missile had been deployed to the country’s northwest — a move that it appeared to link to missions in the South China Sea.

The missile, known as the DF-26, reportedly has a range of 3,000-4,000 km, and the report alluded to the U.S. operations, quoting an unidentified expert as noting that it served as “a good reminder that China is capable of safeguarding its territory.”

“Even when launched from deeper inland areas of China, the DF-26 has a range far-reaching enough to cover the South China Sea,” the expert said.