China angry as U.S. challenges Beijing’s territory

WASHINGTON: The U.S. Navy sent a guided-missile destroyer close to China’s man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing, which said it warned and followed the American vessel.

The patrol by the USS Lassen was the most significant U.S. challenge yet to 12-nautical-mile territorial limits China asserts around the islands in the Spratly archipelago and could ratchet up tensions in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

One U.S. defense official said the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef. A second defense official said the mission, which lasted a few hours, also included Mischief Reef and would be the first in a series of freedom-of-navigation exercises aimed at testing China’s territorial claims.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the “relevant authorities” monitored, followed and warned the USS Lassen as it “illegally” entered waters near islands and reefs in the Spratlys without the Chinese government’s permission.

“China will resolutely respond to any country’s deliberate provocations. We will continue to closely monitor the relevant seas and airspace, and take all necessary steps in accordance with the need,” the ministry said in a statement that gave no details on precisely where the U.S. ship sailed.

“China strongly urges the U.S. side to conscientiously handle China’s serious representations, immediately correct its mistake and not take any dangerous or provocative acts that threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests,” it said.

The second U.S. defense official said additional patrols would follow in the coming weeks and could also be conducted around features that Vietnam and the Philippines have built up in the Spratlys.

“This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” said the official. “It’s not something that’s unique to China.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest referred questions on any specific operations to the Pentagon but said the United States had made clear to China the importance of free flow of commerce in the South China Sea.

The United States had not conducted a patrol within 12 miles of the seven Chinese outposts since Beijing began building the reefs up at the end of 2013. The U.S. Navy last went within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed territory in the Spratlys in 2012.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.


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