WASHINGTON — The Pentagon conducted its first freedom of navigation sailing of 2019, sending a guided-missile destroyer about 12 miles from one of China’s fortified islands in the South China Sea.
Pentagon officials said Monday that the sailing was routine and nothing should be inferred. It occurred as U.S. and Chinese officials were to resume talks on trade disputes between the two nations.
The officials told TMN only one ship, USS McCampbell, participated in the Monday sailing.
Rachel McMarr, a spokesperson for the U.S. Pacific fleet, told reporters in an email the destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, one of two chains China claims as sovereign territory and has taken to fortify.
The Pentagon’s freedom-of-navigation operations — known as “FONOPS” in Pentagon-ese, involve the Navy sailing destroyers, cruisers and the occasional aircraft carrier past the Chinese-occupied outcroppings in the South China Sea and the Air Force sending bombers on flights over the islands.
Both actions irritate Beijing, which says the U.S. needs to seek and receive permission for such activities.
Washington has rejected those claims — arguing that the South China Sea is international waters — and an international court ruled against Beijing. All or parts of the South China Sea and the islands also are claimed by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.
(According to reports in Chinese media, Beijing formally protested the sailing. “We urge the United States to immediately cease this kind of provocation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, according to Sputnik media. “We have already made a presentation to the American side in this regard.”
In a report last November, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said “China has 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and 7 in the Spratlys. It also controls Scarborough Shoal, which it seized in 2012, via a constant coast guard presence, though it has not built any facilities on the feature.”
Another organization, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said that “since 2013, China has engaged in unprecedented dredging and artificial island-building in the Spratlys, creating 3,200 acres of new land, along with a substantial expansion of its presence in the Paracels,” in a posting on its web page about the same time.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Monday’s sailing.