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By Idrees Ali and Ben Blanchard WASHINGTON/BEIJING, March 23 (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation on Friday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials told Reuters.
The operation, which infuriated Beijing, was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as China’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Mustin traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and carried out maneuvering operations. China has territorial disputes with its neighbors over the area.
The United States has criticized China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the area, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.
The latest operation, the first since January, comes just a day after U.S. President Donald Trump lit a slow-burning fuse by signing a presidential memorandum that will target up to $60 billion in Chinese goods with tariffs, following a 30-day consultation period that starts once a list is published.
China’s Defence Ministry said two Chinese naval ships had been sent to identify the U.S. ship and warn it to leave.
It described the actions of the U.S. ship as seriously harming China’s sovereignty and security which threatens regional peace and stability.
Such actions cause forces from both countries to come into close proximity and could easily cause a misjudgment or accident, and create serious political and military provocation for China, it added.
China has always dedicated itself to protecting freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, but opposes “illegal and provocative” moves in the name of freedom of navigation, it said.
“We demand the U.S. side earnestly respects China’s sovereignty and security and the strong wishes of countries in the region to protect peace, stability and tranquility, and not make trouble out of nothing and stir up havoc,” it said.
“The provocative behavior by the U.S. side will only cause the Chinese military to further strengthen building up defense abilities in all areas.”
The U.S. military has a longstanding position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.
China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The U.S. military put countering China and Russia at the center of a new national defense strategy recently unveiled.
China’s navy will carry out combat drills in the South China Sea, the military’s official newspaper said on Friday, calling the move part of regular annual exercises.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said this week it had shadowed a Chinese aircraft carrier group traversing the Taiwan Strait in a southwesterly direction – meaning into the disputed South China Sea – in what Taiwan judged to be a drill.
The United States has been pushing allies to carry out freedom of navigation operations as well.
Britain this year said one of its warships would pass through the South China Sea to assert freedom-of-navigation rights. (Reporting by Idrees Ali and Ben Blanchard Editing by Larry King and Clarence Fernandez)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2018.
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