A UNITED STATES naval vessel passed through the South China Sea within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island on Thursday, in a move likely to agitate Beijing.
Anonymous US officials told Reuters the destroyer, USS John S. McCain, sailed close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, where China has a territorial dispute with its neighbours.
It was the third Freedom of Navigation Operation conducted during Trump’s presidency. Neither China’s Defence Ministry nor its Foreign Ministry immediately responded to a request for comment from Reuters.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters and comes as Trump is seeking China’s cooperation to rein in North Korea.
Tensions have risen recently after North Korea carried out two nuclear tests last year and two ICBM tests last month, prompting a strong round of United Nations sanctions which angered Pyongyang who threatened to teach the US a “severe lesson.”
Trump, in turn, responded by warning North Korea it would face “fire and fury” if it further threatened the US.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a stark warning to North Korea on Wednesday, telling Pyongyang it should stop any actions that would lead to the “end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”
— CSIS (@CSIS) February 23, 2017
The US has criticised China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.
The US military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.
The Trump administration has vowed to conduct more robust South China Sea operations.
In July, a US warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam.
Experts and officials have criticised President Barack Obama for potentially reinforcing China’s claims by sticking to innocent passage, in which a warship effectively recognised a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.
China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Additional reporting by Reuters