A US Navy destroyer on Tuesday sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea, three US officials said, even as US President Donald Trump’s administration seeks Chinese cooperation in reining in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, but it was not as provocative as previous ones carried out since Trump took office in January.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Chafee, a guided-missile destroyer, carried out normal maneuvering operations that challenged “excessive maritime claims” near the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
Speaking in Beijing yesterday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said that China had lodged “stern representations” with the US, and added that the Paracels were Chinese territory.
“China immediately sent naval vessels and military jets to investigate and identify, as well as warn to the vessel and ask it to leave,” she told a daily news briefing.
“China will continue to take resolute measures to protect Chinese sovereign territory and maritime interests. China urges the US to conscientiously respect China’s sovereign territory and security interests, conscientiously respect the efforts regional countries have made to protect peace and stability in the South China Sea and stop these wrong actions,” she added.
Next month, Trump is to make his first visit to Asia as US president, including a stop in China, which he has been pressuring to do more to rein in North Korea.
Unlike in August, when a US Navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, officials said that the destroyer on Tuesday sailed close to, but not within that range of the islands.
Twelve nautical miles mark internationally recognized territorial limits. Sailing within that range is meant to show the US does not recognize territorial claims.
The Pentagon did not comment directly on the operation, but said that the US carried out regular freedom-of-navigation operations and would continue to do so.
The US military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and that they are separate from political considerations.
The US has said it would like to see more international participation in freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Trump’s trip to Asia will likely be dominated by the North Korean nuclear threat. He will also visit South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Trump’s visit to China will reciprocate a trip to the US made in April by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). Trump’s attempts to get Chinese help with North Korea have met with limited success so far, but he has thanked Xi for his efforts.
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