A U.S. Navy destroyer today sailed within 12 miles of a disputed artificial island claimed by China in the South China Sea, according to a U.S. defense official.
The USS Mustin's passage past Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands is the latest Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) conducted by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea in disputed waters claimed by China.
The U.S. ship also conducted maneuvering operations as it sailed past the artificial island, the defense official said. Mischief Reef is one of seven artificial islands built up by China in recent years to press their territorial claims to the island chain.
The Navy carries out FONOPs around the world to challenge excessive maritime claims made by countries, but the operations directed at claims made by China draw the most attention.
China's Foreign Ministry in January strongly criticized the FONOP conducted by the destroyer USS Hopper past Scarborough Shoal, west of the Philippines. The Hopper's passage "violated China's sovereignty and security interests" and put the safety of Chinese vessels and personnel at risk, a ministry statement said.
The operation carried out by the USS Mustin will likely draw attention to its timing because it comes a day after the Trump administration proposed $60 billion in trade tariffs on China. But the operation may have been coincidental because freedom of navigation operations are planned weeks in advance.
“U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including the South China Sea,” Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokeswoman, said in a statement. "All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.
"We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future," she added. "FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements. The United States takes 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 as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”