WASHINGTON • Two US Navy warships yesterday sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China, two US officials told Reuters, in a move likely to anger Beijing as US President Donald Trump seeks its continued cooperation on North Korea.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
While this operation had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it comes at a particularly sensitive time and just days after the Pentagon withdrew an invitation to China to attend a major US-hosted naval drill.
The US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Higgins guided-missile destroyer and Antietam guided-missile cruiser came within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with neighbours. The vessels carried out manoeuvring operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracels, said one of the officials.
Mr Trump's cancellation of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has put further strain on US-China ties amid a trade dispute between the world's two largest economies.
Critics say the operations have little impact on Chinese behaviour and are largely symbolic.
The US military has a longstanding position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and that they are separate from political considerations.
Satellite photographs taken on May 12 showed that China appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles on Woody Island. Earlier this month, China's air force landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise in the region, triggering concern from Vietnam and the Philippines.
The US military did not directly comment on yesterday's operation, but said US forces operate in the region on a daily basis. "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 the US Pacific Fleet.
China's claims in the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) in seaborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.