China’s Foreign Ministry reacted angrily Tuesday after a U.S. Navy ship passed within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands in the South China Sea late Monday in an apparent challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims in the region.
The ministry said that authorities monitored and warned the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen as it moved inside what China claims as a 12-mile territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago, a disputed group of hundreds of reefs, islets, atolls and islands in the South China Sea that is also claimed by the Philippines.
A defense official told the Associated Press the patrol was approved by the White House and took place without incident. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also acknowledged at a Senate committee hearing Tuesday that the U.S. has conducted naval operations in the region “in recent days.”
“The actions of the U.S. warship have threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability,” the Chinese ministry said on its website. “The Chinese side expresses its strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition.”
Meanwhile, the Philippines welcomed the sail-past by the USS Lassen, calling it a way of helping maintain “a balance of power”.
Since 2013, China has accelerated the creation of new outposts by piling sand atop reefs and atolls then adding buildings, ports and airstrips big enough to handle bombers and fighter jets — activities seen as an attempt to change the territorial status quo by changing the geography.
Navy officials had said the sail-past was necessary to assert the U.S. position that China’s man-made islands cannot be considered sovereign territory with the right to surrounding territorial waters.
“We are conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” a senior defense official told Fox News late Monday. “We will fly, sail, and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows.” International law permits military vessels the right of “innocent passage” in transiting other country’s seas without notification.
The Navy’s plan to send a destroyer near the Spratly Islands was first reported by Reuters. A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, declined to comment.
About 30 percent of global trade passes through the South China Sea, which is also home to rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea mineral deposits.
China says it respects the right of navigation, but has never specified the exact legal status of its maritime claims. China says virtually all of the South China Sea belongs to it, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim either parts or all of it.
Beijing’s response closely mirrored its actions in May when a navy dispatcher warned off a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work.
Speaking to foreign correspondents in Manila, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he supported the U.S. naval maneuvers as an assertion of freedom of navigation and as a means to balance power in the region.
“I think expressing support for established norms of international behavior should not be a negative for a country,” he said. “I think everybody would welcome a balance of power anywhere in the world.”
Without identifying China by name, he said “one regional power” has been making “controversial pronouncements” that if must not be left unchallenged.
“The American passage through these contentious waters is meant precisely to say that there are norms as to what freedom of navigation entails and they intend to exercise so that there is no de facto changing of the reality on the ground,” he said.
The Obama administration has long said it will exercise a right to freedom of navigation in any international waters.
“We have been clear that we take no position on competing territorial sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea,” the senior defense official told Fox News late Monday. “U.S. Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations are global in scope and executed against a wide range of excessive maritime claims, irrespective of the coastal state advancing the excessive claim. The longstanding FON program is not directed at any specific country.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said China adhered to international law regarding freedom of navigation and flight, but “resolutely opposes the damaging of China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of free navigation and flight.”
“China will firmly deal with provocations from other countries. We will continue to monitor relevant situation in the sea and air and take any necessary measures when needed,” the statement said.
China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea has become an increasingly sore point in relations with the United States, even as President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping have sought to deepen cooperation in other areas.
Despite those tensions, exchanges between the two militaries have continued to expand, with a U.S. Navy delegation paying visits last week to China’s sole aircraft carrier and a submarine warfare academy.
Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.