WASHINGTON/BEIJING • A United States Navy destroyer carried out a "freedom of navigation" operation on Friday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, US officials said.
The move, which infuriated Beijing, was the latest attempt by Washington to counter what it sees as China's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the destroyer Mustin travelled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and carried out manoeuvring operations. China has territorial rows with its neighbours over the area.
Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognised territorial limit.
The US has criticised China's construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the area, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.
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 (S$78 billion) in Chinese goods with tariffs, following a 30-day consultation period that starts once a list is published.
When asked about the operation, the US military said its activities are carried out under international law and that American 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 Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman, a spokesman for the US Pacific Fleet.
China's Defence Ministry said two Chinese naval ships had been sent to identify the US ship and warn it to leave. It described the actions of the American ship as seriously harming China's sovereignty and security, which threatens regional peace and stability.
Such actions cause forces from both countries to come into close proximity and could easily cause a misjudgment or accident, and create serious political and military provocation for China, the ministry said.
China has always dedicated itself to protecting freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, but opposes "illegal and provocative" moves in the name of freedom of navigation, it added. "The provocative behaviour by the US side will only cause the Chinese military to further strengthen building up defence abilities in all areas."
In January, a US Navy destroyer sailed near Scarborough Shoal, a disputed lagoon claimed by China in the South China Sea.
China's claims in the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.