U.S. Navy Destroyer Sails Near Disputed Island in South China Sea

A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island Saturday, an island claimed by China in the Paracel Islands chain in the South China Sea.

The Pentagon said the warship’s passage was a freedom of navigation operation intended to “challenge excessive maritime claims of parties that claim the Paracel Islands,” which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

The destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) “transited in innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island,” said Department of Defense spokesman Mark Wright. There were no Chinese Navy vessels in the vicinity at the time of the Curtis Wilbur’s transit.

”This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas," said Wright. "The excessive claims regarding Triton Island are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”

None of the three countries were notified by the U.S. of the destroyer’s transit, “which is consistent with our normal process and international law,” said Wright.

“This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and others, not about territorial claims to land features,” he added.

The United States does not take a position on the competing land sovereignty claims in the Paracels, which were seized by China from South Vietnam in 1974.

However, Wright said, “The United State does take a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries, and that all maritime claims must comply with international law.”

Saturday’s transit was similar to another freedom of navigation operation by the USS Lassen on October 27, when that destroyer transited within 12 miles of an artificial island claimed by China in the Spratly Islands chain further south in the South China Sea.

Over the past two years, China has constructed artificial islands around seven reefs in an effort to stake a territorial claim over the disputed island chain. Since last summer, it has begun building airstrips on three of those islands that U.S. officials believe could be intended for future use by China’s military.

The Lassen’s transit drew strong criticism from China’s Foreign Ministry.