WASHINGTON — For the second time this year, the Navy has sent two destroyers near contest islands in the South China Sea, setting a new pace for so-called freedom of navigation operations in the new year.
The USS Spruance and the USS Preble sailed with 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, an outcropping claimed by China. Beijing has militarized some of the islands.
In January, the USS McCampbell, a destroyer, and the USNS Walter S. Diehl, a replenishment vessel, conducted a freedom of operations sailing by the Paracel Islands, the other major island chain claimed by China and other nations.
It is the first time freedom of navigation sailings have been held in the South China Sea in consecutive months.
Pentagon officials, speaking on background, said the sailings are routine and planned far in advance.
“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” they said, using the standard Pentagon response for such operations.
They declined to provide specifics on destinations or when the sailings were authorized.
There were six air and sea freedom of navigation exercises in the South China and East China seas during 2017, according to the annual freedom of navigation report released in January 2018. The newest report is to be released shortly, Pentagon officials said, but they confirmed there was an increase during 2018.
In a statement given to the South China Morning Post newspaper, Beijing demanded that Washington “immediately stop its provocative actions.
“The relevant actions of the U.S. warships violated Chinese sovereignty, and undermined peace, security and order in the relevant sea areas,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told the newspaper on Monday. “The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition.”
Last fall, during another freedom of operations sailing in the region, a Chinese vessel appeared close to ramming a U.S. ship.
The Navy has ratcheted up its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea as Beijing has continued to militarize the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea. Those islands are claimed by multiple nations and an international court has rejected China’s claims to them.
Likewise, the Air Force has increased overflights of the region.
For one sailing last fall, U.S. ships were joined by a British vessel. On Monday, Britain’s defense ministry announced that the nation’s newest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, would be sent to the South China Sea area, according to news reports.