BEIJING — A U.S. naval destroyer sailed early Tuesday within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, a U.S. defense official said, in a direct challenge to China’s territorial claims.
The USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, was accompanied by Navy surveillance planes as it approached the Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, the official said.
The mission “was completed without incident,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The decision to go ahead with the mission follows months of deliberation in Washington and is certain to China, which said last month it would “never allow any country” to violate what it considers to be its territorial waters and airspace around the islands.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had said earlier that Beijing was trying to verify whether the U.S. vessel had entered the 12-mile zone.
“If true, we advise the U.S. to think again, not to act blindly or make trouble out of nothing,” the Foreign Ministry quoted him as saying.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea as its territory, including the main islands and reefs, and has argued that giving up that claim would “shame its ancestors.” The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims, and several of them also occupy different islands, reefs and rocks.
A massive Chinese program of land reclamation and construction on several islands has taken place since 2014, upsetting ties with the United States and several of those rival claimants.
This week’s U.S. naval mission is also intended to test a pledge made by President Xi Jinping during his visit to Washington last month that Beijing would not militarize the islands, U.S. officials have said.
Subi Reef, which lies close to the Philippines in the South China Sea, used to be submerged at high tide before China began a massive dredging project to turn it into an island. It is now big enough to potentially host an airstrip.
Satellite images also show what looks like a surveillance tower and multiple satellite antennas on Subi reef, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Under the international law of the sea, turning such features into artificial islands does not imply any rights to territorial waters around them, something the U.S. mission is designed to underline, although countries can claim a “safety zone” of just 500 meters around previously submerged reefs.
A Chinese airstrip is already under construction at Fiery Cross reef and experts say another could potentially soon be built at Mischief reef. China says the construction work is primarily designed for civilian use and will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
But the Chinese Embassy in Washington said that the concept of freedom of navigation should not be used as an excuse for muscle-flexing and that the United States should “refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining peace and regional stability,” Chinese state media reported.
In Washington, experts backed the U.S. naval action.
“This should have been done a long time ago,” said Bonnie Glaser, an expert on the Chinese military at CSIS. The Navy has wanted conduct such an operation for some time, but the Obama administration had prevented that until now, she said.
While the exercise would probably not stop China from further construction or militarization of air strips on the reefs, Glaser said that there were still good reasons to go ahead.
“Our aim in any freedom of navigation operation is not aimed at that kind of objective. It is simply to sail through waters that are subject to the law of the sea,” she said.
“Some parts of the administration believed this would make things even more difficult, that China would become even more obstreperous, more difficult to deal with,” she said, “and others thought this wasn’t something we should do before Xi Jinping came to Washington.”
At the summit, President Obama told Xi that the United States would operate, fly or sail anywhere that international law allows. On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest referred questions on specific operations to the Pentagon but reiterated that commitment to freedom of navigation.
“This is a critically important principle, particularly in the South China Sea, because there are billions of dollars of commerce that flow through that region of the world every year, and maybe even more than that, Earnest said. “Ensuring the free flow of this commerce and that freedom of navigation of those vessels is protected is critically important to the global economy.”
Additional patrols will follow in coming weeks, and could also be conducted around features that have been built up by Vietnam and the Philippines in the Spratlys, a U.S. defense official told the Reuters news agency.
“This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s not something that’s unique to China.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday the United States is not required to consult with other nations if it decides to conduct such operations.
“The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters. You don’t need to consult with anybody. That’s the idea,” he said.
At the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., associate professor Andrew Erickson said the U.S action underscored its “commitment to maintaining an open global system with global commons that all are free to use to the maximum extent permitted by international law.”
“As can be seen from the operation’s peaceful, unimpeded nature, China and the U.S. share an interest in keeping the vital sea lanes of the South China Sea stable and open,” he said.
The USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, operates out of its home port in Yokosuka, Japan — headquarters for the U.S. 7th Fleet.
The Lassen has been deployed to the South China Sea since late May and has had several routine interactions at sea with Chinese naval vessels, according to U.S. Navy officials.
Whitlock and Mufson reported from Washington.