A guided-missile destroyer from the US Navy on Tuesday came within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea, a challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed waters.
The USS Lassen sailed near Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly archipelago, formerly submerged at high tide before China began a massive dredging project to turn them into islands in 2014.
“The operation has begun … It will be complete within a few hours,” said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Reuters is reporting that the mission is the start of a series of challenges to China’s territorial claims in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
Another official earlier said the ship was likely to be accompanied by a US Navy P-8A surveillance plane and possibly P-3 surveillance plane which have been conducting regular surveillance missions in the region.
The patrols represent the most serious US challenge yet to 12-nautical-mile territorial limits China claims around the islands.
Last month, Beijing said it would “never allow any country” to violate its territorial waters and airspace in the Spratlys.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing is trying to verify if the US ship entered the 12-mile zone.
“If true, we advise the US to think again and before acting, not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing,” the foreign ministry quoted Wang as saying.
The Chinese embassy in Washington said the concept of freedom of navigation should not be used as an excuse for muscle flexing and the US should “refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability.”
Additional patrols will follow in the coming weeks and could also be conducted around features that Vietnam and the Philippines have built up in the Spratlys, the a US official said.
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