Two US warships sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Monday, the US military said, in a move that could anger Beijing at a time of tense relations between the world’s two biggest economies.
The US guided-missile destroyers Preble and Chung Hoon travelled within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands, a US military spokesperson told Reuters news agency.
Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet, said that the “innocent passage” was “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”
The South China Sea is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the US-China relationship, which also include a trade war, US sanctions and self-ruled Taiwan.
US President Donald Trump dramatically increased pressure on China to reach a trade deal by announcing on Sunday he would raise US tariffs on $200bn worth of Chinese goods this week and target hundreds of billions more soon.
The US military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and that they are separate from political considerations.
Monday’s operation, which was first reported by Reuters, was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate.
China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea and frequently lambastes the United States and its allies over naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan have competing claims in the region.
China and the US have repeatedly traded barbs in the past over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.
China defends its construction as necessary for self-defence and says it is the US that is responsible for ratcheting up tensions in the region by sending warships and military planes close to islands Beijing claims.
Last month, China’s navy chief said freedom of navigation should not be used to infringe upon the rights of other countries.
In January, China’s foreign ministry lodged a “stern complaint with the US” after its navy vessel sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands, claimed by China, in the South China Sea.
The latest freedom of navigation operation comes weeks after a major naval parade marking 70 years since the founding of the Chinese navy. The US sent only a low-level delegation to the Chinese navy anniversary events.