TOKYO — A U.S. Navy warship sailed within close range of a Chinese-built island in the South China Sea Tuesday, the latest U.S. “freedom of navigation” operation in the increasingly volatile region.
The USS William P. Lawrence, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of a landfill-island recently constructed on Fiery Cross Reef, an area claimed by China and three other countries.
China recently released photos of the island showing a 10,000-foot runway, lighthouse, port facilities and other modern infrastructure.
Cmdr. Bill Urban, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, said the USS Lawrence operation was intended to "uphold the rights and freedoms of all states under international law and to challenge excessive maritime claims of some claimants in the South China Sea."
China's foreign ministry on Tuesday expressed "resolute opposition" to the operation.
"The action by the U.S. threatens China's sovereignty and security, endangers the safety of people and facilities on the reef, and harms regional peace and stability," spokesman Lu Kang said.
The USS Lawrence is part of a powerful U.S. aircraft carrier battle group that has been operating in the South China Sea since early March. The group, headed by the nuclear-powered carrier USS John C. Stennis, was refused permission by the Chinese authorities to make a routine port call in Hong Kong in late April.
The move apparently was in response to a high-profile visit to the Stennis by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter two weeks earlier. Carter used the visit to criticize China’s territorial claims and island-building campaign in the region.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway though which $5 trillion in international trade passes annually. China has built seven artificial islands in the region in the past two years, some with military-capable facilities that U.S. planners fear China could use to attempt to restrict air and sea navigation.
Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim territory within the South China Sea.
China has pledged not to interfere with air or sea navigation in the region and has said facilities on the new islands are intended to improve safety and navigation for all.
Tuesday’s “freedom of navigation" operation was the third U.S. mission in the region since October 2015.
An international court of arbitration in The Hague is expected to issue a ruling soon on the Philippines’ claims that China is illegally occupying a resource-rich area known as the Scarborough Shoals.
The Philippines considers the region part of its exclusive economic zone. China claims the court has no jurisdiction in the case, has refused to participate in the proceedings and said it will ignore the ruling.
Although the U.S. does not officially support individual territorial claims, Carter visited the Stennis while it was cruising not far from the Scarborough Shoals.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, waters extending 12 nautical miles from shore are considered part of a nation’s sovereign territory. By sailing within that limit, the USS Lawrence appeared to be demonstrating the U.S. does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over the Fiery Cross Reef.