In a provocation that’s sure to raise eyebrows in Beijing, a US Navy destroyer on Tuesday sailed within 12 miles of Paracel islands in the South China Sea in what appears to be the first US “Freedom of Navigation” operation in two months.
Reuters reports that the USS Chafee, a guided-missile destroyer, challenged “excessive maritime claims” near the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors. The operation is believed to be the fourth of its kind to take place since Trump took office.
Unlike a previous mission conducted in August, officials said the destroyer didn’t sail within range of the islands, though it did come close.
As Reuters points out, the ship didn’t penetrate a 12 nautical mile boundary surrounding the islands that marks the islands’ internationally recognized territorial limits. Sailing within that range is meant to show the US doesn’t recognize territorial claims.
The operation was carried out even as China and the Trump administration have been working closely together to pass restrictive economic sanctions against North Korea. Recently, China instructed its banks to stop doing business with North Korean clients, and informed North Korean laborers and businesses that they must stop operating in China and return to North Korea.
When approached by Reuters, the Pentagon did not comment directly on the operation, but said the US has carried out regular freedom-of-navigation operations and would continue to do so.
The operation was portrayed by Reuters as an attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
China has kept up the pressure on North Korea, though some have speculated that it will loosen up following November’s Communist Party Congress. An op-ed published by the Global Post on Tuesday urged North Korea to take the first step toward peace with the US by giving up its nuclear program. The GP is considered a mouthpiece for the Chinese government.