BEIJING • A United States navy warship sailed close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea yesterday, a US Department of Defence official said, prompting anger in Beijing which denounced the patrol as illegal and a threat to peace and stability.
The guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence travelled within 22km of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef, Defence 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," Mr Urban said in an e-mailed statement.
Beijing and Washington have accused each other of militarising South China Sea as China undertakes large-scale land reclamations and construction on disputed features while the US has increased its patrols and exercises in the region.
This action by the US side threatened China's sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability.
CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN LU KANG
If the world's most powerful navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to the ships of navies of smaller countries?
MR DANIEL RUSSEL, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.
Facilities on Fiery Cross Reef include a 3,000m 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 US ship illegally entered Chinese waters and was tracked and warned. "This action by the US 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.
China claims most of South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$6.86 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
The Pentagon last month called on China to reaffirm that it has no plans to deploy military aircraft in the disputed Spratly Islands after Beijing used a military plane to evacuate sick workers from Fiery Cross.
"Fiery Cross is sensitive because it is presumed to be the future hub of Chinese military operations in the South China Sea, given its already extensive infrastructure, including its large and deep port and 3,000m runway," said Dr Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore's Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. "The timing is interesting, too. It is a show of US determination ahead of President Obama's trip to Vietnam later this month."
Speaking in Hanoi, Mr Daniel Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, said freedom-of-navigation operations were important for smaller nations. "If the world's most powerful navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to the ships of navies of smaller countries?" he told reporters before news of the operation was made public.