(Updates with comment from China)
By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON May 24 A U.S. Navy warship sailed
within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by
China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials said on Wednesday,
the first such challenge to Beijing in the strategic waterway
since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the
USS Dewey traveled close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly
Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which
China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
China said its warships had warned the U.S. ship and it
lodged "stern representations" with the United States. China
said it remained resolutely opposed to so-called freedom of
The U.S. patrol, the first of its kind since October, marked
the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's
efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters,
and comes as Trump is seeking China's cooperation to rein in
ally North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Territorial waters are generally defined by U.N. convention
as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state's coastline.
One U.S. official said it was the first operation near a
land feature which was included in a ruling last year against
China by an international arbitration court in The Hague. The
court invalidated China's claim to sovereignty over large
swathes of the South China Sea.
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 movement.
U.S. allies and partners in the region had grown anxious as
the Trump administration held off on carrying out South China
Sea operations during its first few months in office.
Last month, top U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region,
Admiral Harry Harris, said the United States would likely carry
out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea
Still, the U.S. military has a long-standing position that
the operations are carried out throughout the world, including
in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political
"We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis,
including in the South China Sea. We operate in accordance with
international law," Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said
in a statement.
The Pentagon gave no details of the latest mission.
Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a
monthly briefing two Chinese guided-missile warships had warned
the U.S. vessel to leave the waters, and China had complained to
the United States.
"The U.S. side's errant ways have caused damage to the
improving situation in the South China Sea, and are not
conducive to peace and stability," Ren said.
Ren was referring to a recent of easing of tension between
China and other claimants, in particular the Philippines.
China's extensive claims to the South China Sea, which sees
about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade pass every year, are
challenged by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as
well as Taiwan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said such patrols
were "very likely to cause unexpected sea and air accidents".
Under the previous U.S. administration, the Navy conducted
several such voyages through the South China Sea. The last
operation was approved by then-President Barack Obama.
The latest U.S. patrol is likely to exacerbate U.S.-China
tensions that had eased since Trump hosted Chinese President Xi
Jinping for a summit in Florida resort last month.
Trump lambasted China during the 2016 presidential campaign,
accusing it of stealing U.S. jobs with unfair trade policies,
manipulating its currency and militarizing parts of the South
In December, after winning office, he upended protocol by
taking a call from the president of self-ruled Taiwan, which
China regards as its own sacred territory.
But since meeting Xi, Trump has praised him for efforts to
restrain North Korea, though it has persisted with ballistic
U.S.-based South China Sea expert Greg Poling of the Center
for Strategic and International Studies, said the operation was
the first conducted by the United States close to an artificial
feature built by China not entitled to a territorial sea under
Previous freedom of navigation operations have gone within
12 nautical miles of Subi and Fiery Cross reefs, two other
features in the Spratlys built up by China, but both of those
features are entitled to a territorial sea.
Mischief Reef was not entitled to a territorial sea as it
was underwater at high tide before it was built up by China and
was not close enough to another feature entitled to such a
territorial sea, said Poling.
He said the key question was whether the U.S. warship had
engaged in a real challenge to the Chinese claims by turning on
radar or launching a helicopter or boat - actions not permitted
in a territorial sea under international law.
Otherwise, critics say, the operation would have resembled
what is known as "innocent passage" and could have reinforced
rather than challenged China's claim to a territorial limit
around the reef.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, and
Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Additional
reporting and writing by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom;
Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Sandra Maler)