The US Navy has sent a destroyer close to a contested island in the South China Sea that Beijing has fortified with military installations to stake its territorial claims on the region.
The sailing came as the Chinese military entered a third day of a show of force around Taiwan, a thousand miles away near the northern entrance to the South China Sea, in response to a brief visit by Taiwan’s President to the United States.
On Monday, a statement from the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said the guided-missile destroyer USS Milius passed within 12 nautical miles – the internationally recognized limit of a nation’s territorial waters – of Mischief Reef in the Spratly islands, known as the Nansha Islands in China.
Mischief Reef, which lies in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone, is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. But Beijing has asserted its claims to the island by building it up and placing military infrastructure on it.
The US contends such actions are in violation of the Law of the Sea Convention.
“Features like Mischief Reef that are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea. The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law,” the US 7th Fleet statement said.
China claims almost all of the vast South China Sea as part of its territorial waters, including many distant islands and inlets in the disputed body of water, many of which – like Mischief Reef – Beijing has militarized.
A spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Command said the US destroyer “illegally intruded” into Chinese waters near Mischief Reef, which Beijing calls Meiji Reef.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their nearby waters,” Air Force Senior Col. Tian Junli said in a statement.
The US destroyer’s so-called freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) defended the rights for vessels of any nation to operate in the area, the 7th Fleet statement said.
US warships regularly conduct such FONOPs in the South China Sea and Monday’s was the second in three weeks by the Milius, which on March 23 sailed near the Paracel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in China, in the northern part of the South China Sea.
“The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows – regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events,” the 7th Fleet said in Monday’s statement.
After the March FONOP, Beijing claimed the US had violated its sovereignty while “undermining peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Tan Kefei, spokesperson for the Chinese Defense Ministry, said.
Monday’s US FONOP came as Chinese forces entered their third day of large-scale military exercises around the island of Taiwan, the self-governing democracy to the north of the South China Sea that China’s ruling Communist Party claims as its territory despite never having ruled it.
Beijing launched the operations around Taiwan on Saturday, a day after Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen returned from a 10-day visit to Central America and the United States where she met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Beijing had repeatedly warned against Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy and had previously threatened to take “strong and resolute measures” if it went ahead.