CHINA has sent military vessels and warplanes to “warn off” an American warship that sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea, a provocative move that could further strain relations between the superpowers.
The USS Stethem destroyer passed less than 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) from tiny Triton Island in the Paracel Islands archipelago, which is occupied by China but also claimed by other Asian countries.
Beijing has reacted with outrage.
“Under the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation,’ the US side once again sent a military vessel into China’s territorial waters off the Xisha Islands without China’s approval,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement.
He claimed that such US behaviour “violated Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, and disrupted the peace, security and order of the relevant waters.”
The statement said: “China dispatched military vessels and fighter planes in response to warn off the US vessel. The Chinese side is dissatisfied with, and opposed to, the relevant behaviour of the US side.”
Lu said the US is “deliberately stirring up troubles in the South China Sea, as well as running in the opposite direction from countries in the region who aspire for stability, co-operation and development.”
The operation, meant to demonstrate freedom of navigation in disputed waters, came just hours before a previously scheduled phone call between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
However, the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, last week presented a speech in Melbourne that rejected China’s claims of sovereignty.
“Fake islands should not be believed by real people,” he said of China’s use of fortified man-made islands to establish their South China Sea claims.
Beijing’s controversial island infrastructure is nearing completion, with the start of new buildings recently being observed on Triton Island itself.
It was the second operation of its kind carried out by the United States since Mr Trump took office and comes days after his administration took a number of steps that seemed sure to strain US-Chinese relations. On May 24, the USS Dewey, came within 12 miles of the disputed Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.
The new move comes as Beijing continues muscular efforts to cement its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The United Nations says countries can establish the reach of their territorial waters up to a limit of 12 nautical miles.
China has rapidly built reefs in the area into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
Freedom of navigation operations are designed to challenge the sovereignty of countries with claims to disputed territory. Washington has challenged annexations of South China Sea islets while advocating for a diplomatic settlement.