The U.S. Navy has sailed a warship near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a strategic flash point in the South China Sea claimed by China, in a move expected to stoke anger in Beijing as the world’s two biggest economies remain embroiled in a trade war.
The USS Preble guided-missile destroyer carried out the operation Sunday, a U.S. military spokesman told The Japan Times on Monday.
The Preble conducted a so-called freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), sailing “within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Scarborough Reef in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” said Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based 7th Fleet.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that it “strongly urges U.S. to stop such provocative actions.” Beijing has in the past blasted the U.S. FONOPs, saying that it will “take all necessary measures” to protect what it claims is its “national sovereignty.”
The operation was the second FONOP this month in the waterway, after the U.S. sent the Preble and the USS Chung Hoon within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly chain.
It also comes as Beijing and Washington face off in a protracted trade war in which both sides appear to be unwilling to bend — stances that could have a dramatic effect on the global economy.
Scarborough Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan, is regarded as a potential powder keg in the strategic waterway. It was seized by Beijing in 2012 after an extended standoff with Manila. China later effectively blockaded the lagoon, which is rich in fish stocks, and routinely dispatches scores of fishing vessels and government-backed “maritime militia” ships to the area to continue its de facto blockade.
Both China and the U.S. have in recent months ramped up their presence near the collection of outcroppings that barely rise above the water at high tide and lie just 230 km (140 miles) from the Philippine coast.
Last month, the U.S. apparently sailed the USS Wasp amphibious assault ship in the area of the strategic reef. Filipino fishermen working nearby had initially spotted the massive U.S. vessel, media reports said.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the South China Sea, including the construction of man-made islands, some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and regularly conducts FONOPs in the area.
The U.S. says that its military operates in the region on a daily basis in accordance with international law.
“The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Doss said. “That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe. We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future,” he said, adding that the operations “are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”
China covets Scarborough Shoal for its strategic significance, experts say, as it would be the crowning jewel in a bid to solidify Beijing’s iron grip over the South China Sea. They say building at Scarborough would create a large “strategic triangle” comprising Woody Island in the Paracel Islands to the northwest and its Spratly islet outposts to the south, giving Beijing the ability to police an air defense identification zone over a vast swath of the South China Sea.
The impact of such a strategic triangle — which would bring the entire region under Chinese radar, missile and air coverage — would be tremendous for both the United States’ and Japan’s strategic planning, some experts say, and could be a game-changer in regional power relations.
But any decision by China to forcefully take over the collection of outcroppings for land-reclamation purposes would likely be met with resistance by the U.S., the Philippines and others.
In an effort to push back against China’s behavior near Scarborough, the U.S. Navy sent a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the site in January last year.