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Beijing accuses US of ‘serious provocation’ after destroyer sails through disputed South China Sea

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China’s Defense Ministry has accused the U.S. of “serious political and military provocation” after the U.S. Navy conducted its first so-called freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the disputed South China Sea since January.

China said the USS Mustin, a guided-missile destroyer, entered the contentious waters Friday and was “warned off” by two Chinese ships. The Chinese Defense Ministry did not give a location for the operation, but media reports, citing unidentified U.S. officials, reported that the Mustin had sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and carried out maneuvering operations.

 

The Mustin is homeported at Yokosuka Naval Base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Mischief Reef, one of China’s man-made islands in the Spratlys, is home to a large airfield as well as other military-grade facilities.

Asked to comment on the operation, the U.S. military said its activities are carried out under international law and that American forces operate in the region — including the South China Sea — on a daily basis.

“We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

“FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” Schwegman added.

Washington has lambasted Beijing for its man-made islands in the South China Sea, with some home to military-grade airfields and weapons. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and has conducted several FONOPs in the area.

Beijing has disputed this claim, saying the militarization of the outposts — over which it claims absolute sovereignty — has been for self-defense purposes.

Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea, and has built up a series of man-made outposts in what the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank has said is a bid to create “fully functioning air and naval bases.” – TJT