US warship sails near disputed islands in South China Sea, officials say

Idrees Ali, Reuters

Posted at Mar 23 2018 08:03 PM | Updated as of Dec 17 2018 09:07 AM

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) prepares to approach the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) for a replenishment-at-sea in the western Pacific region in this photo taken on May 26, 2017. Photo from the US Navy website

WASHINGTON - A US Navy destroyer carried out a "freedom of navigation" operation on Friday, coming within 12 nautical miles or about 22 kilometers of an artificial island built by China in the disputed South China Sea, US officials told Reuters.

Friday's operation, a move likely to anger China. was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Mustin traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and carried out maneuvering operations. China has territorial disputes with its neighbors over the area, including the Philippines.

Neither China’s Foreign nor Defense Ministries immediately responded to a request for comment.

In the past, Beijing has reacted angrily to such moves, saying they are provocative.

The US military has a longstanding position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.

However, the latest operation, the first since January, comes just a day after US President Donald Trump lit a slow-burning fuse when he signed a presidential memorandum that will target up to $60 billion in Chinese goods with tariffs, but only after a 30-day consultation period that starts once a list is published.

The United States has criticized 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.

China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The US military put countering China and Russia at the center of a new national defense strategy recently unveiled.

China's navy will carry out combat drills in the South China Sea, the military's official newspaper said on Friday, describing the move as part of regular annual exercises.

Taiwan's defense ministry said this week it had shadowed a Chinese aircraft carrier group traversing the Taiwan Strait in a southwesterly direction - meaning into the disputed South China Sea - in what Taiwan judged to be a drill.

The United States has been pushing allies to carry out freedom of navigation operations as well.

Earlier this year, Britain said one of its warships would pass through the South China Sea to assert freedom-of-navigation rights.