WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A US Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation operation” yesterday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, US officials said.
The operation came as President Donald Trump’s administration seeks Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes and could complicate efforts to secure a common stance.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS John S McCain travelled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals. China has territorial disputes with its neighbours over the area.
It was the third “freedom of navigation operation” conducted during Mr Trump’s presidency.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, and comes as Mr Trump is seeking China’s cooperation to rein in North Korea.
Tensions have risen recently after North Korea carried out two nuclear tests last year and two ICBM tests last month, prompting a strong round of UN sanctions which angered Pyongyang who threatened to teach the US a “severe lesson”.
The US has criticised 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.
The US military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.
The Trump administration has vowed to conduct more robust South China Sea operations.
In July, a US warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam.
Experts and officials have criticised President Barack Obama for potentially reinforcing China’s claims by sticking to innocent passage, in which a warship effectively recognised a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.