BEIJING (REUTERS) - China’s Defence Ministry said on Friday (March 23) the United States had seriously harmed the country’s sovereignty and security after a US Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation in the disputed South China Sea.
Provocative behaviour by the United States will only cause the Chinese military to strengthen its defence capabilities, the ministry said in a statement.
It added that the USS Mustin had been “warned off” by the frigates Huangshan and Zhenjiang.
“We demand the US side earnestly respects China’s sovereignty and security and the strong wishes of countries in the region to protect peace, stability and tranquility, and not make trouble out of nothing and stir up havoc,” it said.
“The provocative behavior by the US side will only cause the Chinese military to further strengthen building up defence abilities in all areas.”
USS Mustin had come within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, an artificial island built by China in the Spratly Islands, US officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Friday’s operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters. China has territorial disputes with its neighbours over the area.
The US military has a longstanding position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.
The latest operation, the first since January, occurred just a day after US President Donald Trump lit a slow-burning fuse by signing a presidential memorandum that will target up to US$60 billion in Chinese goods with tariffs, following a 30-day consultation period that starts once a list is published.
When asked about the latest operation, the US 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.
The United States has criticised China’s construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement
The freedom of navigation operation on Friday came as the Chinese military's official newspaper said the navy will carry out combat drills in the South China Sea, in what it said is part of regular annual exercises.
Taiwan's defence ministry said this week it had shadowed a Chinese aircraft carrier group traversing the Taiwan Strait in a southwesterly direction - meaning into the disputed South China Sea - in what Taiwan judged to be a drill.
In a brief report on its WeChat account, the People's Liberation Army Daily said the combat exercises would take place shortly, though it gave no details of timing, location or what ships would participate.
"This is a routine annual planned arrangement for the navy, the aim of which is to test and improve the military's training level and to fully raise the ability to win. It is not aimed at any specific country or target," the newspaper added, without elaborating.
China's navy and air force frequently carry out drills in the South China Sea, where the government has been building man-made islands and constructing airstrips and other facilities, unnerving the region.
China claims most of the South China Sea, a key trade route and home to areas that are believed to hold large quantities of oil and natural gas. Along with China, parts of the South China Sea are subject to competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
China routinely rejects criticism of its activities in the South China Sea, saying as it is Chinese territory it can do what it wants.