A Navy warship maneuvered within close range of a militarized Chinese-claimed reef in the South China Sea this week in the first freedom of navigation operation under President Trump.
The USS Dewey, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 miles of the disputed Mischief Reef on Wednesday, defense officials said. It was the first Navy freedom of navigation operation in the contested sea under the Trump administration.
During the operation, the warship carried out what officials described as a maneuvering drill in a bid to show the waters are international sea and not China's maritime territory.
Significantly, the drill included a man-overboard exercise close to the reef that set a legal precedent showing the operation was more than innocent passage.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson confirmed the warship transit near Mischief Reef but sought to play down the action as part of routine global naval maneuvers designed to contest all foreign nations' expansive claims to open sea.
"We do them in the South China Sea," Richardson said. "We do them all over the world. We have been doing them since 1979."
Earlier, in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Richardson said naval freedom of navigation activities are designed to prevent foreign states from asserting expansive territorial claims on international waters.
The South China Sea is a strategic waterway and is used annually to transport an estimated $5 trillion in trade.
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated early in the administration that the United States would block China from taking over the South China Sea and militarizing newly made islands.
However, after pressure from China and pro-China lobbyists in the United States, both Trump and Tillerson have backed off pressuring Beijing on its drive for maritime hegemony. Perceived Chinese cooperation in dealing with the threat from North Korea is believed to undergird the policy shift.
Richardson said navigation operations "sure get a lot of attention when they happen."
"But I don't think in terms of the logical approach to why we do those there's anything different than the South China Sea than there is anywhere else," he said.
China is claiming 90 percent of the South China Sea as its territory, and for more than a decade has been quietly building military facilities on some 3,200 acres of newly created and built up islets and reefs throughout the region.
Predictably, as it has in the past, China denounced the Dewey passage as an infringement of its territory.
"The USS Dewey illegally entered the waters near the island early Thursday without permission of the Chinese government," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing. "Such moves have undermined China's sovereignty and security, and were very likely to cause unexpected air and sea accidents."
Lu asserted that Chinese warships expelled the Dewey from waters around the reef, which is part of the Spratly islands that China calls the Nansha Islands.
At the Chinese Defense Ministry, spokesman Ren Guoqiang, said the Dewey conducted the transit without China permission and claimed Chinese missile frigates Liuzhou and Luzhou were dispatched to expel the ship from the area.
"The U.S. acts, aimed at showing off military power and pushing regional militarization, could have easily caused sea and air accidents," Ren said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis declined to confirm the operation.
"We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea," he said. "We operate in accordance with international law. We have a comprehensive freedom of navigation operations program that seeks to methodically challenge excessive maritime claims in order to preserve the rights of all nations."
The operations are not about a single nation or single body of water, he said, noting that last year naval passage operations were carried out involving 22 states, including allies.
"We are continuing regular [freedom of navigation operations], as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future," he said.
A Pentagon official said a recent New York Times report that stated the Trump administration had put its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea on hold in a bid to maintain close ties with China was inaccurate.
The Times reported May 2 a request for three navigation operations was rejected by the Pentagon in a policy shift based on "deference toward China."
The official said that contrary to the Times report, Adm. Harry Harris, the Pacific Command commander, proposed one freedom of navigation operation earlier this year.
Instead of approval, the admiral was told by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that instead of authorizing each operation as occurred in the past, the commander should present a strategic plan for regular navigation and other military operations in the South China Sea.
"There will be additional operations," the official said.
Until Wednesday's warship passage, the last time the Navy carried out a freedom of navigation operation was Oct. 21.
James Kraska, a professor at the Naval War College, said the Mischief Reef passage is strategically significant in challenging China's claims to the reef.
"This was the first public notice of a freedom of navigation (FON) operation in the Trump administration, and may prove the most significant yet for the United States because it challenges not only China’s apparent claim of a territorial sea around Mischief Reef, but in doing so questions China’s sovereignty over the land feature altogether," Kraska said in a post to the Lawfare blog.
Kraska said the Dewey's rescue drill demonstrated "high seas freedoms near Mischief Reef."
"The U.S. exercise of high seas freedoms around Mischief Reef broadly repudiates China’s claims of sovereignty over the feature and its surrounding waters," he said.
Kraska said Mischief Reef does not enjoy the status of maritime territory because it is not under the sovereignty of any state and is characterized as a low-tide elevation.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which monitors Chinese military activities in the sea, China has built a port facility, a runway capable of handling military aircraft, aircraft hangers, radar and sensors, and mobile missile shelters on Mischief Reef.
Kraska said the Chinese military facilities do not qualify the reef for legal claims as Chinese territory and that the reef is part of the Philippines continental shelf.
"The Philippines enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the feature, including all of its living and non-living resources," he said.
"The Dewey challenged China’s claim of 'indisputable sovereignty' to Mischief Reef as one of the features in the South China Sea, and China’s claim of 'adjacent' waters surrounding it," Kraska said.
The latest warship transit also bolsters a recent United Nations court arbitration ruling that undermined China's legal claim.
"This transit cuts through the diplomatic dissembling that obfuscates the legal seascape and is the most tangible expression of the U.S. view that the arbitration ruling is 'final and binding,'" Kraska said.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said the latest warship activity near Mischief Reef is a welcome first step.
"It reinforces the United States's long standing commitment to international law, specifically our support for the July 2016 UN Arbitration Panel's ruling against China's illegal claims and activities in the South China Sea," Fanell said.
"The administration did well by not providing prior notification of the USS Dewey's [freedom of navigation operation] and it would do well to provide more detailed post fonop reporting that would provide the American public and international community unambiguous clarity as to the U.S.'s strategic intentions."
Fanell said it is equally important for the Pentagon to routinely disclose other Pacific Fleet operations by warships, submarines, and aircraft in the South China Sea to challenge China's sovereignty claims.
"The increased presence of U.S. forces in these disputed waters of the South and East China Sea is the only battle-tested remedy for confronting China's expanding maritime sovereignty campaign," Fanell said.