China protests to US over sail-by in disputed waters

BEIJING — China said on Wednesday it has lodged a protest with the United States after an American warship sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The US Navy missile destroyer Chafee entered into China’s territorial waters near the Sansha islands on Tuesday, according to Beijing’s foreign ministry.

China immediately dispatched military vessels and aircraft for identification and warned the US ship to leave, ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing.

“The US vessel action violated Chinese laws and relevant international laws, undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests,” Hua said.

“China is firmly opposed to that and has lodged stern presentations with the US,” Hua said, using the term for official diplomatic protests.

If confirmed by the United States, it would be the fourth “freedom of navigation” operation (FONOP) carried out by the US Navy since President Donald Trump took office in January.

A US defense ministry spokesman refused to confirm the maneuver.

But he said all operations are conducted in accordance with international law and “demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows”.

“We are continuing regular FONOPS, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” Lieutenant Colonel Chris Logan said in a statement.

The US Navy regularly carries out such operations to challenge China’s vast claims to the South China Sea, where Beijing has turned reefs into militarized artificial islands.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim territory in the vast sea.

However, Hua said: “The Chinese government will continue to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime entitlements. We urge the US to respect Chinese sovereignty and security interests.”

The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters. But it was not as provocative as previous ones carried out since Trump took office in January.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Chafee, a guided-missile destroyer, carried out normal maneuvering operations that challenged “excessive maritime claims” near the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.

Next month, Trump makes his first visit to Asia as president, including a stop in China, which he has been pressuring to do more to rein in North Korea. China is North Korea’s neighbor and biggest trading partner.

Unlike in August, when a US Navy destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, officials said the destroyer on Tuesday sailed close to but not within that range of the islands. — Agencies