The US sailed two guided-missile destroyers close to the disputed islands in the South China Sea on Monday, 11 February, to challenge China's excessive maritime claim, drawing the ire of Beijing which accused Washington of trying to "stir up trouble".
The USS Spruance and USS Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands as part of what the US Navy calls a "freedom of navigation operation," CNN reported.
The move angered Beijing at a time when the US and China ton are locked in a trade war and are negotiating a deal ahead of a March 1 deadline when US tariffs on USD 200 billion worth of Chinese imports are expected to increase to 25 per cent from 10 per cent.
Reacting to the US' move, China accused Washington of trespassing in its territorial waters.
‘US is Determined to Stir up Trouble in the South China Sea’
The US is "determined to stir up trouble in the South China Sea, create tension and undermine peace", Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press briefing.
She urged the US to cease the “provocative actions”.
The Spratly Islands are a disputed group of islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs, sometimes grouped in submerged old atolls, in the South China Sea. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Vietnam.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, though Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of it.
Monday's operation was carried out "to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law," Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the US Navy's 7th Fleet, said.
"All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," Doss said, adding "that is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe." The operation was the second in the South China Sea reported by the US Navy this year. In January, the destroyer USS McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands.
Shortly after that operation, China accused the US of trespassing in its territorial waters – and said it had deployed missiles "capable of targeting medium and large ships." In late September, the USS Decatur also sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands as part of a similar freedom of navigation operation.
During that operation, a Chinese destroyer came within 45 yards of the US warship, forcing it to maneuver to avoid a collision. The US labeled the Chinese warship's actions unsafe and unprofessional, while Beijing said the US was threatening the safety and sovereignty of China.
The two countries have traded barbs over what US said was Beijing's military installation building on artificial islands and reefs.
Over the last five years China has rapidly built artificial islands housing significant military infrastructure on what had been low-lying reefs. The United States has criticised China for militarising the islands by constructing long runways used by jet fighters and deploying anti-aircraft missiles.
China says the construction is necessary for defence, and it was the US that was responsible for tensions by sending warships and military planes close to islands Beijing claims.