A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China and drew a warning from the Chinese warships to leave the area. China called the move "illegal" and "provocative," and reported that two of their warships had warned the U.S. to leave.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur challenged the "excessive maritime claims" near the Paracel Islands, a string of islands that China and its neighbors have been disputing over.
According to an anonymous source, this latest U.S. patrol has angered Beijing and could further increase tensions over the South China Sea. The Decatur did not sail within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits of the island, said the anonymous official.
The Pentagon said the Decatur "conducted this transit in a routing, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident." The ship sailed near Triton and Woody Islands and was shadowed by three Chinese ships, according to the official, and all interactions between the vessels involved was safe, Reuters reported.
The White House confirmed the Reuters report.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a news briefing that "This operation demonstrated that coastal states may not lawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law."
This is the U.S.'s fourth challenge this year to China's overreaching maritime claims, and the first challenge since May.
China said it declared its "baseline" for the Paracel Islands in 1996 and that the U.S. was aware of this claim. Despite that, China said the U.S. had sent a ship into Chinese "territorial waters."
That would be true if we sailed within the 12-mile territorial waters, but we didn't.
China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.S. ship did not ask for permission to enter Chinese territorial waters, and had broken both Chinese and international law. They say that the U.S. is deliberately creating tensions.
They are full of wonton soup.
The latest U.S. operation comes soon after Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in June, visited China and announced his "separation" from Washington and his love for Beijing. (Duterte is the guy who's executing drug addicts and dealers, carte blanche.)
A government official in Washington said that our latest operation had nothing to do with Duterte's visit and that the patrol had been planned for weeks. Other officials say they will continue such operations despite Beijing's objections.
"The U.S. Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all. This will not change," said Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson.
Although U.S. officials have said the operations will continue despite Beijing's protests, the Obama administration has been criticized in Congress for conducting them haphazardly, slapdash, and in a somewhat creampuff fashion.