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U.S. Sails Warship Near Island in South China Sea, Challenging Chinese Claims

An American warship sailed on Tuesday within 12 miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, an operation intended to show that the United States opposes China's efforts to restrict navigation in the strategic waterway, the Pentagon said.

The warship, the William P. Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer, ventured into the vicinity of Fiery Cross Reef, a 700-acre artificial island China constructed in the last 18 months on top of two small rocks.

The operation on Tuesday, known as a freedom-of-navigation patrol, came as tensions between the United States and China escalated ahead of a United Nations arbitration ruling on whether Beijing has the right to claim 12-mile territorial waters and 200-mile exclusive economic zones around reefs and atolls in the South China Sea.

The ruling, in a case brought by the Philippines, an American ally, is expected in the coming weeks.

China has built a military-capable runway and dredged a deepwater port on Fiery Cross Reef, one of seven specks in the Spratly archipelago close to the Philippines that it has enlarged. China contends that other countries must request transit rights for their ships around its claims in the South China Sea, the Pentagon said.

To emphasize its rights to Fiery Cross Reef, the vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, Gen. Fan Changlong, recently visited there, and the Chinese Army sent a performance group to entertain military personnel and the construction workers who built the island.

Cmdr. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said in a statement that the William P. Lawrence "exercised right of innocent passage" as it transited within 12 miles of Fiery Cross Reef. That means the vessel was not conducting military operations.

In response, China said the American destroyer had sailed through Chinese waters illegally. The ship was tracked and warned, said a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, Lu Kang.

"This action by the U.S. side threatened China's sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability," Mr. Lu said at a regular news briefing.

Later, the Chinese Ministry of Defense said that three Chinese aircraft and three warships had "expelled" the American vessel from China's waters.

"It once again demonstrates that China's installation of defensive facilities on the Nansha Islands is totally reasonable and very necessary indeed," the ministry spokesman, Yang Yujun, said in a statement.

Nansha Islands is the name Beijing uses for the Spratlys.

The United States operation was carried out to demonstrate the right of freedom of navigation, the Pentagon said. Taiwan and Vietnam also claim Fiery Cross Reef, and like China, require prior notice for navigation within the 12-mile zone, the statement said. The Philippines, also a claimant to Fiery Cross Reef, makes no such demands, the Pentagon said.

As an indication of the mounting tensions, China's military said that it was conducting exercises in the South China Sea this week with warships, submarines, aircraft and troops from the garrisons in the Spratly archipelago and the Paracel Islands.

The United States Navy conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation in January around the Paracel Islands, and another in October around Subi Reef, in the Spratly archipelago. None of the countries that make claims to the disputed rocks and atolls were notified of the freedom-of-navigation operation on Tuesday, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon said it did not make judgments on the territorial rights to the disputed islands.

[Source: By Jane Perlez, The New York Times, Hong Kong, 10May16]

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East China Sea Conflict
small logoThis document has been published on 20May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.