A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a second transit near a disputed South China Sea island claimed by China and two other nations, the Pentagon announced Saturday.
China’s Defense Ministry denounced the warship transit and said its forces had forced the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur out of the area.
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Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban said the freedom of navigation operation by the Wilbur took place Saturday near Triton Island in the Paracel Islands chain in the northern part of the sea "to challenge excessive maritime claims."
"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," Urban said in a statement.
The Wilbur, a guided missile destroyer, passed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island.
"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.
While the U.S. government takes no position on the competing sovereignty claims, "the United States 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," the spokesman said.
None of the three nations’ governments were notified of the transit, the second time a U.S. warship has conducted a freedom of navigation operation after a hiatus in such operations of over three years.
No details of the activities of the warship were disclosed. Freedom of navigation operations usually involve transit within 12 miles of an island along with operations that can include radar activity, flights of aircraft and maneuvers within the 12-mile limit. The operation also could have involved what is known as "innocent passage" through territorial waters.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, said Saturday’s operation was "a strategically important event that unambiguously demonstrates the continued resolve of the United States to challenge the unilateral actions of China’s maritime sovereignty campaign in the South China Sea."
"Beijing, not content with laying claim to their ‘New Spratly Islands,’ will be even further challenged to claim sovereignty over the disputed Paracel Islands," Fanell said. "The long-term impact of this [freedom of navigation operation] will be measured by follow-on challenges to the PRC’s claims from all nations in the region."
Triton Island is near where China conducted oil drilling with a floating, deep-water rig in disputed waters close to Vietnam in July 2014.
The Parcels, called the Xisha by China, were the location of a military confrontation between China and South Vietnam in 1974. During the battle, eight warships from both countries and some army forces clashed, resulting in Chinese control over several of the islands.
The Paracels are a series of islands stretching around 100 miles from Tree Island in the northeast to Triton in the southwest.
The Pentagon statement included Taiwan as one of the nations included the navigational challenge. Last week, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou visited Taiping Island in the Spratly’s island chain in what Taiwanese officials said was an effort to gain access to international arbitration on the islands dispute.
The Philippines government has challenged China’s claims to the Spratlys in an arbitration being held at the World Court in The Hague. Taiwan, which has several facilities and coast guard forces on Taiping Island, where Ma visited, has been blocked from taking part in the arbitration.
Following the transit of the USS Lassens, a guided missile destroyer, in October, China’s government reacted harshly and called the transit a military provocation.
China is claiming some 90 percent of the South China Sea as its maritime domain, and the Pentagon has said it rejects the claim. China has set up a vaguely defined "Nine Dash Line" covering most of the sea.
Navy officials have said the Chinese claims have threatened the transit of some $5 trillion in annual trade through the region, including an estimated in $1.2 trillion in trade bound for the United States.
President Barack Obama called on China in November to halt construction on some of the 3,000 acres of newly-created islands in the disputed waters that are now being militarized with airfields, deep water ports, and other military features.
Days later, China’s government responded to the president’s call by announcing that the construction of military facilities would continue.
China is building airstrips on three islands in the Spratlys that the Pentagon has said could be used to station warplanes capable of controlling the entire airspace over the sea.
In the Parcels, China’s main military facility is located on Woody Island, about 90 miles northeast of Triton Island, where a military airstrip and other facilities were recently expanded.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and has been critical of the administration’s failure to conduct such freedom of navigation operations, praised the latest warship transit and said he was encouraged by the action.
"I continue to hope these operations will become so routine that China and other claimants will come to accept them as normal occurrences and releasing press statements to praise them will no longer be necessary," McCain said.
Urban, the Pentagon spokesman, said the latest operation demonstrated that "the United States will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows."
"That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe," he said.
However, a senior military official said the failure to conduct the navigation operations between 2012 and last October was the result of bureaucratic opposition within the Obama administration that sought to avoid upsetting China.
The official said the former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear, had proposed conducting the close transit warship transits in the South China Sea but was overruled for years by officials in other agencies of government who blocked the requests by failing to respond to the admiral’s requests.
"After a while, [Locklear] stopped making the requests."
Last year, McCain disclosed during a committee hearing that the administration had restricted Pacific Command from conducting the operations for both aircraft and warships.
"The administration has continued to restrict our Navy ships from operating within 12 nautical miles of China’s reclaimed islands," McCain said Sept. 17.
The hearing prompted the new Pacific Command chief, Adm. Harry Harris, to renew the transit requests and the first operation was carried out Oct. 26 near the Spratlys Islands, in the southern part of the sea.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said warnings were issued to the Wilbur to leave the area during the operation and that the transit was "a serious violation of law" and "damaged the peace and security of relevant waters and good order, and it is not helpful to regional peace and stability."
"The People's Liberation Army sent warnings and drove away a U.S. navy destroyer intruding into Chinese territorial waters of Xisha [Paracel] Islands in the South China Sea," the Chinese Defense Ministry said in response.
"The Chinese troops stationed at the islands and naval ships and airplanes made an immediate response, took countermeasures and conducted identification and verification against the U.S. warship," ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement issued Saturday night.
A defense official disputed the ministry spokesman's claim.
"There were no PLAN ships in the area at the time of the transit," the official said, adding there were no course deviations from the Wilbur's planned track.
According to Yang, U.S. warships and aircraft have been dispatched to the waters several times and have led to "brushes" between the two militaries.
"Such actions are technically very unprofessional, they are irresponsible to the safety of servicemen of both sides, and are extremely dangerous in regard to (potential) outcomes," Yang said, according to state-run Chinese media reports.
Yang vowed that China’s military would "take all the necessary measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security no matter what provocative actions are made by the U.S. side."