by Allen Cone
Washington (UPI) Jul 2, 2017
The USS Stethem, a U.S. Navy destroyer, sailed Sunday within 12 miles of a disputed island in the South China Sea claimed by China, a U.S. official said.
The Sethem approached the Triton Island in the 30-island Paracel archipelago, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The Paracel Islands are known as the Xisha Islands in China and the Hoang Sa Archipelago in Vietnam.
The standard international boundary extending offshore from all nations is 12 nautical miles.
The United States does not recognize Beijing's claim of sovereignty over the islands.
Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told CNN the Navy conducted a "freedom of navigation exercise" around the island as a routine part of U.S. Navy operations.
Knight said it was an innocent passage, which generally allows for a ship to pass through the territorial waters of another country.
"The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," he told USA Today. He added the exercises "are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements."
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement the U.S. "trespassed" and it sent "military vessels and fighter planes in response to warn off the US vessel."
China called the action "a serious political and military provocation."
On May 24, the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey sailed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands chain, which lies to the south of the Paracels.
Last week, President Donald Trump's administration sanctioned Chinese entities doing business with North Korea and approved a new arms sale to Taiwan.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said in a report Thursday China is continuing to build up infrastructure on three islands in the Spratly chain: Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs.
The initiative, which is part of Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that recent satellite imagery shows China "remains committed to developing its power projection capabilities."
Adm. Harry Harris, the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific, said in a speech last week in Australia that Beijing was using "fake islands" to build up a military and strategic advantage.
"China is altering physical and political landscapes by creating and militarizing man-made bases," Harris said. "Fake islands should not be believed by real people."
In April, the Navy announced the Stethem, an Arleigh Burke-class, guided-missile destroyer, was conducting routine operations in the South China Sea.
"Conducting these types of operations with our allies builds proficiency and sustains our ability to maintain a persistent presence throughout the 7th Fleet area of operations," Command Senior Chief William Palmer IV said at the time.
During operations, Stethem has regularly communicated with naval vessels from the People's Republic of China, the U.S. Navy said.
The ship, commissioned in 1995, is named after Steelworker Second Class Robert Dean Stethem, who was killed by Hezbollah terrorists during the hijacking of the commercial airliner he was aboard, TWA Flight 847, in 1985.
The 505-foot-long ship has 26 officers and 315 enlisted crew members, according to a ship fact sheet.
US warship sails close to S. China Sea island occupied by Beijing
The USS Stethem destroyer passed less than 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from tiny Triton Island in the Paracel Islands archipelago, which is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, the official told AFP.
The operation, meant to demonstrate freedom of navigation in disputed waters, came just hours before a previously scheduled phone call between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
China did not immediately issue a response.
It was the second operation of its kind carried out by the United States since Trump took office and comes days after his administration took a number of steps that seemed sure to strain US-Chinese relations.
Trump on Thursday authorized a $1.3 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province. The same day, the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on a Chinese bank accused of laundering North Korean cash.
Also Thursday, the State Department expressed concern about Beijing's respect for freedom in Hong Kong, on the 20th anniversary of Britain ceding the territory back to China.
And two days earlier, the State Department placed China on a list of the world's worst human trafficking offenders.
- A sharp cooling -
All those steps added up to a sharp reversal in tone from April, when Xi traveled to Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for a first face-to-face meeting that Trump later said had helped build an "outstanding" relationship.
Further positive signs had followed, including an agreement in May on exporting US beef and natural gas to China.
Trump had praised China's efforts to bring pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.
But when those efforts failed to produce results -- Pyongyang conducted new missile tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions -- the American president made his frustration known.
Those efforts had "not worked out," Trump tweeted on June 20, adding, "At least I know China tried!"
Trump is scheduled to speak with Xi on Sunday at 8:45 pm (00h45 GMT Monday), 45 minutes after speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
- A growing Chinese presence -
The latest US "freedom of navigation" exercise comes as Beijing continues muscular efforts to cement its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The United Nations says countries can establish the reach of their territorial waters up to a limit of 12 nautical miles.
China has rapidly built reefs in the area into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
Freedom of navigation operations are designed to challenge the sovereignty of countries with claims to disputed territory. Washington has challenged annexations of South China Sea islets while advocating for a diplomatic settlement.
On May 25, the USS Dewey guided-missile destroyer sailed less than 12 nautical miles from Mischief Reef -- part of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, south of the Paracel Islands.
China has recently built up its facilities on Triton Island, including a new helicopter landing site, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
A large Chinese flag is displayed on the island, visible from aerial and satellite photos.
Beijing's continuing construction in the area will allow Chinese planes to operate over nearly the entire South China Sea, according to the AMTI.
The United States in fiscal year 2016 conducted freedom of navigation operations "challenging excessive maritime claims of 22 different coastal states, including claims of allies and partners," the Pentagon said.
Beijing (AFP) June 30, 2017
Relations between China and the United States soured on Friday as Beijing fumed over US arms sales to Taiwan and US sanctions against a Chinese bank linked to North Korea. The sudden US actions and China's angry response mark a break from the friendlier tone that had emerged after US President Donald Trump hosted Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at his Florida resort in April. Chinese fore ... read more
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