Two U.S. warships sailed near disputed islands in the South China Sea on Monday, challenging Beijing’s claims for the third time this year amid simmering trade tensions.
The guided-missile destroyers USS Preble and USS Chung-Hoon passed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs, said Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet. The China-occupied features are part of the Spratly chain, which are also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The move was intended to assert international rights to “innocent passage” and “challenge excessive maritime claims,” Doss said. The U.S. has conducted at least three so-called freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea this year, compared with five publicly reported trips in all of 2018.
“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Doss said. The operation was first reported by Reuters.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs later said that the country’s navy “identified and warned off” the vessels. “The relevant moves by the U.S. warships have infringed on China’s sovereignty and undermined peace and security in relevant waters. We firmly oppose that,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Such patrols have sometimes resulted in tense encounters at sea. During a similar operation near Gavin and Johnson reefs in September, a U.S. destroyer was forced to maneuver to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship.
The disputed South China Sea is one of several potential strategic flash points between China and the U.S. where tensions have flared during the ongoing trade war. Still, freedom-of-navigation operations require some advance planning and Monday’s transit was likely unrelated to U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest tariff threat.
“FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” Doss said.