A US warship has sailed within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island claimed by China, the Pentagon has confirmed. The guided-missile destroyer, USS Curtis Wilbur, was involved in an operation near Triton Island in the Paracels – a collection of islands in the South China Sea which are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said no ships from China’s military were in the vicinity of its warship as it sailed past.
However, China’s foreign ministry has accused the US of “violating Chinese laws by entering Chinese territorial waters without permission” – and warned it has taken “relevant measures” to monitor the islands.
According to the US Department of Defense, the exercise was designed to thwart attempts by the three nations to restrict freedom of navigation.
The South China Sea is a major shipping route for trade, with roughly $5tn (£3.5tn) of trade making its way through the region each year – and the US believes that the passage should be regarded as international waters.
China has laid claim to 90% of the South China Sea, which is potentially rich in energy resources – but the ownership of some areas is also disputed by Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Captain Davis added: “No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law.”
China seized full control of the Paracels in the 1970s following a naval showdown with Vietnam – and earlier in January, Beijing announced plans to attract private investment to the islands.
It followed a US research institute’s claims that China was ramping up construction work on the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea – with two military-length airstrips nearing completion.
In a similar operation in October, another US guided-missile destroyer sailed close to one of those manmade islands, infuriating Beijing.
There have been calls in Congress for President Barack Obama to perform more of these patrols.
Chinese authorities have begun to develop travel links to the disputed islands – with a cruise service already attracting more than 10,000 tourists.
However, it may not always be a picture-perfect destination, given how the Paracels are regularly hit by typhoons and strong winds.
Upon hearing about China’s investment plans, the US State Department renewed its calls for all of the countries laying claim to the Paracels to stop constructing new facilities, militarising outposts, and reclaiming land.