The U.S. Navy has sent warships on two occasions in recent days near islands claimed by Beijing in the disputed South China Sea, the military told The Japan Times on Friday.
The so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) on Wednesday and Thursday came amid rising tensions between the two powers, and just days after China demanded the U.S. military “stop flexing muscles” in the strategic waterway.
On Wednesday, the littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords traveled within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Mischief Reef in the Spratly chain, Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said. And on Thursday, the destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer challenged restrictions on innocent passage in the Paracel Islands, north of the Spratlys, Mommsen said.
The U.S. Navy has angered China by regularly conducting FONOPs by ships close to some of the islands China occupies, including man-made islets, in the waterway, asserting freedom of access to crucial international waterways.
Mommsen said the operations “are conducted peacefully and without bias for or against any particular country.”
“These missions are based in the rule of law and demonstrate our commitment to upholding the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations,” she added.
Beijing claims much of the South China Sea, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the Chinese, U.S., Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies routinely operate.
Neither Japan nor the U.S. have claims in the waters, but both allies have routinely stated their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The busy waterway is just one of several flash points in the U.S.-China relationship, which include an ongoing trade war, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and support for Taiwan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper met Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe earlier this week for closed-door talks on the sidelines of a gathering of defense chiefs in Bangkok.
Wei urged Esper to “stop flexing muscles in the South China Sea and to not provoke and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said Monday.
Esper has accused Beijing of “increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives” in the region.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the waterway, including the construction of man-made islands — such as those in the Paracel chain and further south in the Spratlys — 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.
Beijing says it has deployed the advanced weaponry to the islets for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the waters.
In a defense white paper released for the first time in years last month, China highlighted a new emphasis on “combat readiness and military training in real combat conditions” and China’s new war-fighting capabilities in the Western Pacific and South China Sea.
Beijing, the white paper said, “has organized naval parades in the South China Sea” and “conducted a series of live force-on-force exercises” while its air force “has conducted combat patrols in the South China Sea and security patrols in the East China Sea, and operated in the West Pacific.”