After carrying out no fewer than four "Freedom of Navigation" operations last year and one in January, The US sent a Navy Destroyer to sail within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands - a move that China condemned as a "severe provocation" just as the two countries are on the verge of an all-out trade war.
The operation was the US's latest attempt to push back against an expanding Chinese military presence in the Pacific that at least one US military leader has characterized as an ominous national security threat that could lead to all-out war. Admiral Harry Harris said last month that the US should be "prepared for war" with China due to its increasingly aggressive posture, which he said was a veiled attempt by Beijing to undermine the national world order.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US destroyer Mustin traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and "carried out maneuvering operations." The Spratly Islands, located in the South China Sea, are the epicenter of a territorial dispute between China and several of its neighbors, per Reuters. Twelve nautical miles is the internationally recognized territorial limit.
When asked about the operation, the U.S. military said its activities are carried out under international law and American forces operate in the region on a daily bases.
"We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future," said Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for US Pacific Fleet.
China’s Defense Ministry said two Chinese naval ships had been sent to identify the US ship and warn it to leave the area immediately.
China opposes "illegal and provocative" operations, and denies US allegations that it's cracking down on freedom of movement in the region.
A spokesperson for China's Defense Ministry said "the provocative behavior by the US side will only cause the Chinese military to further strengthen building up defense abilities in all areas."
In a separate statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said the country would continue to take all necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and peace and stability in the South China Sea, where it said the situation was developing for the better with the hard work of China and Southeast Asian nations.
However, it appears China is going to be facing more scrutiny, not less, over its presence in the South China Sea. The UK said last month said one of its warships would pass through the South China Sea to assert freedom-of-navigation rights. The US has repeatedly called on its allies to carry out "Freeops" of their own.