March 23, 2018 / 7:54 AM / 8 months ago

Exclusive - U.S. warship sails near disputed islands in South China Sea, officials say

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation on Friday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The operation, which infuriated Beijing, was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as China’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the destroyer Mustin travelled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and carried out manoeuvring operations. China has territorial disputes with its neighbours over the area.

The United States has criticized China’s construction of islands and buildup of military facilities in the area, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.

The latest operation, the first since January, occurred just a day after U.S. President Donald Trump lit a slow-burning fuse by signing a presidential memorandum that will target up to $60 billion in Chinese goods with tariffs, following a 30-day consultation period that starts once a list is published.

When asked about the latest operation, the U.S. military said its activities are carried out under international law and American forces operate in the region on a daily bases.

“We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” said Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Pacific Fleet.

China’s Defense Ministry said two Chinese naval ships had been sent to identify the U.S. ship and warn it to leave.

It described the actions of the American ship as seriously harming China’s sovereignty and security, which threatens regional peace and stability.

Such actions cause forces from both countries to come into close proximity and could easily cause a misjudgement or accident, and create serious political and military provocation for China, it added.

China has always dedicated itself to protecting freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, but opposes “illegal and provocative” moves in the name of freedom of navigation, it said.

“We demand the U.S. side earnestly respects China’s sovereignty and security and the strong wishes of countries in the region to protect peace, stability and tranquility, and not make trouble out of nothing and stir up havoc,” it said.

“The provocative behaviour by the U.S. side will only cause the Chinese military to further strengthen building up defence abilities in all areas.”

The U.S. 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.

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 U.S. military put countering China and Russia at the centre of a new national defence strategy unveiled in January.

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

FILE PHOTO - Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) transits in formation with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship JS Kirisame (DD 104) during bilateral training in South China Sea on April 21, 2015. Courtesy David Flewellyn/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Wednesday 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.

Britain last month said one of its warships would pass through the South China Sea to assert freedom-of-navigation rights.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Ben Blanchard; editing by Larry King, Clarence Fernandez and Jonathan Oatis

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