Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to Reuters, said powerful U.S. Navy warships have sailed near the disputed islands in the South Sea claimed by China, in a move expected to infuriate Beijing as new reports indicate the US-North Korea summit maybe back on the table for June 12.
Reuters’ sources said this weekend’s naval operation had been planned month ago, and missions to sail warships around Beijing’s weaponized islands in the South China Sea have become more routine. Washington’s motive behind the operation is said to counter Beijing’s efforts to restrict freedom of navigation in critical shipping lanes around the islands.
China’s Weaponized Islands In The South China Sea
The U.S. Navy’s operation comes at a time when the Pentagon withdrew an invitation for People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to take part in a multinational naval drill in the Pacific this summer, which has put military trust between both countries at a low heading into the second half of the year.
The sources said the USS Higgins (DDG-76), a United States Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (flight II) and the USS Antietam (CG-54), a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser of the United States Navy, came within 12 nautical miles of the heavily disputed, weaponized Paracel chain in the South China Sea.
2017 Shipping Lanes In The South China Sea
(Source: Marine Traffic)
“The U.S. military vessels carried out maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels,” a source told Reuters.
One of the Pentagon’s reasons behind disinviting the PLAN from the multinational naval exercises was due to reports that the military was again — secretly weaponizing its South China Sea islands. Satellite photographs taken on May 12 revealed surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missile units staged at Woody Island.
The satellite images taken in early May by Imagesat International show surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles on the northern shore of the Island, next to a radar system, all covered by a camouflage net. (ImageSat International)
In early May, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) for the first time landed several strategic bombers on the islands and reefs, some human-made, in the region where China is actively preparing for war.
In a statement, the Chinese Air Force said that “a division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) recently organized multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions.”
Chinese bombers including the H-6K conduct takeoff and landing training on an island reef at a southern sea area pic.twitter.com/ASY9tGhfAU— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) May 18, 2018
Reuters said the Pentagon did not directly comment on Sunday’s incident but said U.S. naval warships sail in the region on a regular basis.
“We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement.
Breaking moments ago, the Chinese Ministry of Defense accused Washington of serious infringement of Chinese sovereignty after it sailed its warships into Chinese territorial waters without permission. According to Sputnik, the Chinese military demanded the U.S. warships leave the heavily disputed waters.
Beijing has recently said, it has every right to construct what it calls “necessary defensive facilities” on its islands in the South China Sea. China’s Defence Ministry reiterated that its building of “defense facilities” was to preserve the country’s sovereignty and legitimate claims in the South China Sea, and has very limited to do with militarization.
As the U.S. Navy uses the freedom of navigation card to sail its most dangerous warships miles from Beijing’s heavily weaponized islands in the South China Sea, at some point, China could resort to extraordinary deterrent measures to protect its sovereignty in the region.