Navy challenges China, others in South China Sea


WASHINGTON — The Navy challenged China and other countries’ “excessive” attempts to restrict navigation in the South China Sea on Saturday, sailing the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur near disputed islands there, according to the Pentagon.

The “freedom of navigation operation” took the vessel within 12 miles of Triton Island, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. The operation took place late Friday ET.

The Curtis Wilbur’s passage makes good on pledges by President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter to assert legitimate claims to sail freely in international waters, Davis said. There were no Chinese ships in the area when the Curtis Wilbur sailed past.

“This operation demonstrated, as the president and secretary have stated, that we will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” Davis said. “That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe.”

China, Taiwan and Vietnam have attempted to restrict navigation around islands and other features in the area, seeking prior permission from vessels sailing near them. Their claims do not comply with international law, Davis said, and no permission was sought before the Curtis Wilbur sailed past.

Chinese government officials criticized the Navy’s action, calling it a violation of law that threatened peace in the region, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

“The U.S. warship violated Chinese law and entered China’s territorial sea without authorization,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, according to Xinhua. “The Chinese side conducted surveillance and vocal warnings to the U.S. warship.”

The South China Sea has become a flashpoint as China and countries in the region seek control of trade routes and mineral deposits beneath the seafloor. China has been hauling massive amounts of sand and other material to build on reefs and other features, setting up landing strips.

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