The U.S. warship John S. McCain steamed near the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, according to the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet.

The guided-missile destroyer’s freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, was the latest move in the Navy’s continuing assertion that the waters increasingly claimed by Beijing are international and open to transit.

Tuesday’s trip also was meant to challenge “restriction on innocent passage” imposed by Vietnam and Taiwan in the sea.

“All interactions with foreign military forces were consistent with international norms and did not impact the operation,” according to a 7th Fleet statement. “Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.”

The Spratly Islands are claimed in full or in part by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, but China, Vietnam and Taiwan required advanced notice or permission before ships can pass through nearby waters, a mandate that runs counter to international law, according to 7th Fleet.

“By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions,” the command said.

It’s been a busy few FONOP months for John S. McCain, which steamed into the Sea of Japan in November to challenge similar excessive maritime claims by Russia.

In that instance, the Russian Defense Ministry said a destroyer warned the U.S. warship to leave the area and threatened to ram the ship, a characterization of events that 7th Fleet denied at the time.

Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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