The Navy conducted the latest freedom of navigation operation in the contested South China Sea on Monday, sending two guided missile destroyers near the Spratly Islands.
“The guided missile destroyers USS Preble and USS Chung Hoon conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea May 6,” said Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet.
“Preble and Chung Hoon sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson Reefs in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”
China denounced the warship passage, stating that Chinese warships and aircraft were dispatched to warn the Navy ships to leave the area.
Gaven Reef, according to satellite photos taken in November 2017, included a multi-story Chinese administrative building, gun emplacements, radar domes, wind turbines, and sensor communications equipment. Johnson Reef also has a multi-story building, a point defense gun emplacement, radar and communications equipment, and several observation towers. All were built within the past five years.
The warship passage came five days after Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan issued a stern warning to Congress on what he termed “the China threat,” including efforts to take over the South China Sea.
“Make no mistake—China is extending that reach [in the Indo-Pacific] by increasing its overt military and coercive activities vis-à-vis its neighbors,” Shanahan said.
“China’s increasingly provocative behavior in the Indo-Pacific, particularly the South China Sea (SCS), should concern us all,” he said.
The acting defense chief also said China is interfering with freedom of navigation in the sea. “We do not have to use our imaginations,” he said. “China habitually threatens this freedom, using both conventional military force projection and ‘gray zone’ or irregular warfare activities.”
One example, he said, took place in September when Chinese military vessels sailed dangerously close to the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur off the coast of the Spratly Islands. “China’s force projection inside and outside the [South China Sea] disrespects and undermines our rules-based international order and threatens regional stability and security,” Shanahan said.
Between 2013 and 2018 China increased air and sea incursions into the South China Sea by a factor of 12, Shanahan said. “Within those five years, it also increased deployments of offensive and defensive weapons systems to the [South China Sea] by the same order of magnitude.”
Land reclamation of islands in what the United States regards as international waters included 3,200 acres of islands between 2013 and 2015. The Chinese also are building facilities within a self-proclaimed “Nine-Dash Line” covering most of the sea that in 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled had no legal basis.