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Two warships of the United States cruised near the disputed islands in the South China Sea on Monday (Sunday night ET), an action that would surely provoke the ire of Beijing.
The USS Spruance and USS Preble guided missile destroyers sailed less than 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from the Spratly Islands as part of what the US Navy calls a “freedom of navigation operation“.
The operation was carried out “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to navigable waterways as governed by international law,” said Commander Clay Doss, spokesman for the 7th US Navy Fleet.
“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate where permitted by international law,” said Doss, adding that “this is true in the South China Sea as in other parts of the world “
Monday’s operation was the second reported by the United States Navy this year in the South China Sea. In January, the destroyer USS McCampbell less than 12 nautical miles from the Paracel Islands.
Shortly after that operation, China accused the United States of raiding its territorial waters and said it had deployed missiles “capable of attacking medium and large ships.”
“The action of the United States violated Chinese laws and international laws, infringed on China’s sovereignty, and damaged peace, security and regional order,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at the time. “China will take the necessary measures to protect the sovereignty of the state.”
In late September, the USS Decatur also sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands, as part of a similar freedom of navigation operation.
During that operation, a Chinese destroyer approached about 40 meters from the US warship, forcing it to maneuver to avoid a collision. The United States called the actions of the Chinese warship unsafe and unprofessional, while Beijing said the United States was threatening China’s security and sovereignty.
The United States has accused Beijing of installing missiles and other military equipment on the disputed islands.
“There has been a steady increase,” Admiral John Richardson, head of US naval operations, told reporters earlier this month when asked about the militarization of China in the area.
“Weapons systems have become increasingly sophisticated, so it’s something we are watching very closely,” he added.
“We have great interests there, so we’re going to stay there,” he said, noting that about a third of world trade went through those waters.