An American guided missile destroyer sailed through disputed waters in the South China Sea on Friday, with China slamming the move as “illegal” and “provocative.”
The USS Decatur sailed through waters claimed by China, closely passing by the contested Paracel Islands which are de facto under Chinese control.
US officials said the action was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
The Chinese Defense Ministry has decried the American incursion as “illegal” and “provocative,” but US officials have denied any wrongdoing, stating that America was exercising its rights to sail through international waters.
“This operation demonstrated that coastal states may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law,” Reuters quoted White House spokesman Josh Earnest as saying at a news briefing.
In the last three freedom-of-navigation operations conducted in the region over the last year, US Navy ships have gone within the 12-mile radius to challenge Chinese territorial claims described by the US and its allies as “excessive.”
According to the Chinese Defense Ministry, the USS Decatur was approached by at least two Chinese vessels as it passed by the islands, which reportedly warned it to leave. But US officials said the voyage passed without incident and denied that the ship was escorted.
“USS Decatur (DDG 73) conducted this transit in a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident on Oct. 21,” Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross told the Navy Times. “The United States conducts these routine operations on a regular basis around the world, in full compliance with international law.”
There is a Chinese military presence on the archipelago concentrated around Woody Island, where China maintains a runway and an arsenal of surface-to-air missiles.
Although it is also contested by Taiwan and Vietnam, China has had de facto control of the Paracel Islands since 1974, when it routed Vietnamese forces from the area.
The United States and its local allies, which until recently included the Philippines, have a keen interest in undermining the Chinese influence in the region.
Despite Chinese protests the US government plans to continue sending ships on freedom-of-navigation operations, and indeed the Obama administration has been criticized in Congress for not authorizing them often enough.