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US warships enter South China sea and spark new tensions

China sea

A U.S. Navy warship entered South China sea and came within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by Chinese military, U.S. Officials confirmed yesterday during a press conference.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Dewey, an Alreigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer, traveled close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.

China sea

USS Dewey, an Alreigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer

Chinese officials protested the move and called for their American counterparts to respect international maritime laws and withdraw their vessels from South China sea. China’s Defense Ministry told reporters that it had sought an explanation with U.S. officials over the incident, which Beijing said involved the USS Dewey and took place around Mischief Reef, one of a chain of artificial islands China has built and fortified to assert its claims over the strategic waterway.

The U.S. patrol, the first of its kind since October, marked the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, and comes as Trump is seeking China’s cooperation to rein in ally North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

China sea

South China sea has seen increasing militarization in recent years due to tensions in the Asian-Pacific region

Territorial waters are generally defined by U.N. convention as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline.

One U.S. official said it was the first operation near a land feature which was included in a ruling last year against China by an international arbitration court in The Hague. The court invalidated China’s claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea.

China sea

One of the many artificial islands built by Chinese armed forces in the South China sea

The move is sure to antagonize China, which has reacted negatively to previous freedom of navigation operations in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, two island chains in the South China Sea. The last time the U.S. military conducted such an operation near a disputed island in the South China Sea was in October under the Trump administration.

Without confirming Wednesday’s freedom of navigation operation, Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman said, “We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We operate in accordance with international law.”

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