Two U.S. destroyers steamed near islands in the increasingly contested South China Sea Monday as part of a continuing effort to counter Beijing’s claim over those waters, officials confirmed.
The guided-missile destroyers Spruance and Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands “in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” Cmdr. Clayton Doss, spokesman for the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet, said in a statement.
These freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, are designed to challenge China’s increasingly strident assertions that shoals and islets in international waters are their territory.
China has built and fortified islands in the Spratly group, including added runways.
Monday’s FONOP focused on Mischief Reef, an atoll east of the Spratly group that China has expanded into an island and equipped with runways, hangars and other military facilities, according to satellite images.
Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam also claim the reef.
The Navy’s FONOPs are a delicate dance for both sides, with American officials expressing concerns that miscalculations could lead to military escalation.
The guided-missile destroyer Decatur nearly collided with an onrushing Chinese warship last fall during a similar FONOP.
Doss said Monday’s FONOP followed international law and that U.S. forces routinely operate in international aters and airspace.
“The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” he said. “That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.”
“FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” Doss added.
This latest FONOP took place less than a month after Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson traveled to Beijing and Nanjing to meet with his Chinese counterparts, part of an effort to get China’s leaders to abide by international law and slow territorial claims over the South China Sea and other international flash points.
“As we manage these differences and continue to operate in each other’s company in the South China Sea and increasingly around the world…we’ve got to behave in ways that don’t make this more of a tense situation,” the Associated Press quoted Richardson as saying.
Two U.S. warships sailed through the Strait of Taiwan last month in another effort to show the Chinese that they intend to keep such disputed waters international.
China expressed “stern complaints” to the United States after a similar FONOP in January, the AP reported.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Chinese planes and ships were deployed to prod the guided-missile McCampbell to leave waters around its islands as they were sailing without China’s permission.
“Relevant actions by U.S. vessels violate Chinese and international laws, infringe on China’s sovereignty, and undermine peace, stability and good order in relevant waters,” the AP quoted Lu as saying.