A United States navy warship sailed close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea on Tuesday, a US Department of Defense official said, prompting anger in Beijing which denounced the patrol as illegal and a threat to peace and stability.
Guided missile destroyer the USS William P. Lawrence traveled within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef, Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban said. The so-called freedom of navigation operation was undertaken to “challenge excessive maritime claims” by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam which were seeking to restrict navigation rights in the South China Sea, he said.
“These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise,” Urban said in an emailed statement.
Beijing and Washington have traded accusations that the other is militarizing the South China Sea as China undertakes large-scale land reclamations and construction on disputed features while the United States has increased its patrols and exercises in the region.
Facilities on Fiery Cross Reef include a 3,000-metre (10,000-foot) runway and Washington is concerned China will use it to press its extensive territorial claims at the expense of weaker rivals.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the U.S. ship illegally entered Chinese waters and was tracked and warned.
“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,” he told a daily news briefing.