BEIJING: The US on Tuesday sailed a warship close to a disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) reef Beijing has built up into an artificial island, reports and officials said, prompting China to express “dissatisfaction and opposition.”
Guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence navigated within 12 nautical miles of the Fiery Cross Reef, occupied by China and also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, the Wall Street Journal reported.
It is Washington’s third “freedom of navigation” operation in the disputed waters launched in recent months after China built several artificial islands as it asserts claims to nearly all the sea.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang confirmed the operation on Tuesday, saying the warship “illegally entered waters near the relevant reefs of China’s Nansha islands without the permission of the Chinese government”.
Nansha is China’s name for the Spratly Islands, where Fiery Cross Reef lies.
Authorities monitored the passage, Lu said.
“China hereby expresses dissatisfaction and opposition,” Lu said, adding: “I want to stress that the action taken by the US has threatened (the) security, interests and sovereignty of China.”
Beijing has significantly expanded Fiery Cross — which is around 1,000 kilometers from its island province of Hainan — since 2014, building a 3,000-meter runway there.
It landed an air force plane on the reef last month and last week sent military singer Song Zuying to serenade hundreds of troops and construction workers there.
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters close to Southeast Asian neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei who have competing claims.
The sail-by comes ahead of a ruling an international tribunal on a case brought by the Philippines over the issue.