WASHINGTON, D.C.: A US destroyer sailed close to a cluster of islands claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea on Friday, the Pentagon said, a move China condemned as “illegal” and “provocative” amid continued tensions in the contested waterway.
The USS Decatur passed close to the Paracel Islands and “conducted this transit in a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident,” Pentagon spokesman Commander Gary Ross said.
“This operation demonstrated that coastal States may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law.”
The maneuver is the third South China Sea “freedom of navigation” operation conducted this year by the United States, which has repeatedly stressed it will ignore China’s “excessive” maritime claims.
China slammed the US for sailing a warship near disputed territory in the South China Sea, saying the move was a “serious illegal act” and “deliberately provocative.”
In a statement on its website late Friday night, the country’s defense ministry said two Chinese naval vessels warned off a US ship after it entered “Chinese territorial waters” near the Paracel Islands, known as Xisha in Chinese.
China controls all of the islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The ship’s “entrance into China’s territorial waters is a serious illegal act and a deliberately provocative act,” it said, adding that the ministry had made “solemn representations” to Washington.
In a separate online statement, the foreign ministry said the action had “seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, and had seriously broken relevant Chinese law and international law.”
Ross said the Decatur did not sail within 12 nautical miles of the islands, but crossed through a broader swath of ocean claimed by China.
Friday’s operation was the first since a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July ruled there was no legal basis to China’s claims to nearly all of the sea—a verdict Beijing dismissed vehemently.
China that month held a week of military drills around the Paracels in the northern part of the South China Sea, during which other ships were prohibited from entering the waters.
Several other nations across the region including the Philippines and Vietnam have rival claims to various parts of the South China Sea.
The US action came as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wrapped up a four-day state visit to China, where he pledged to increase cooperation with Beijing, while at the same time slamming his country’s long-time ally Washington.
In a joint statement at the end of his trip, the Chinese and Philippine leaders pledged to resume bilateral talks over their own territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
The statement skipped any mention of the arbitration case, which was initiated by the Philippines under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino 3rd.