US Navy sails past contested islands in South China Sea amid U.S.-China tensions

The United States sailed a warship close to disputed islands in the South China Sea on Sunday, a move that is bound to draw the ire of Beijing and comes amid heightened US-China tensions over a broad range of issues.

Two US officials told CNN that the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands as part of what the US Navy calls “freedom of navigation operations,” which are meant to enforce the right of free passage in international waters.

“US Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including the South China Sea. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” a US defense official told CNN.

The freedom of navigation operations “challenge excessive maritime claims and demonstrate our commitment to uphold the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law,” the official added.

While the Navy conducts such freedom of navigation operations all over the world, China is particularly sensitive about the operations when they come near areas where the Chinese government has built islands and established military facilities on disputed maritime features.

The last such freedom of navigation operation took place in May when the US Navy sailed two warships within 12 miles of four of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

China claims both the Spratly and the Paracel islands however those claims are rejected by much of the international community.

The US has long slammed what it calls China’s militarization of these islands, with US officials accusing Beijing of deploying missiles and electronic jamming equipment there.

Earlier this week, the US flew B-52 bombers over the South China Sea and East China Sea, areas considered sensitive by the Chinese military.

The flights drew a protest from Beijing, which labeled them provocative.

On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis tried to downplay tensions between the US and China, saying missions like the B-52 flights and Sunday’s operation were “nothing out of the ordinary.”

“There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it, nor about our ship sailing through there,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “I’ve noticed that other nations have also incurred certain diplomatic wrath out of Beijing for sailing their ships through. It’s international waters, folks.”

But Sunday’s sailing of a warship by the Spratly Islands is bound to draw a protest from the Chinese government and comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump accused China of attempting to interfere in the 2018 US elections, and the countries are embroiled in a high-profile trade dispute.

In the last 10 days, the Chinese government denied a US Navy warship permission to visit Hong Kong, the US sanctioned a Chinese defense entity over its purchase of Russian-made weapons, the State Department approved a military equipment sale to Taiwan, and a high-ranking Chinese naval officer canceled a meeting with his American counterpart.

“We’re sorting out, obviously, a period with some tension there, trade tension and all, so we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Mattis said Wednesday when asked about the tensions. “But I don’t think that we’re seeing a fundamental shift in anything. We’re just going through one of those periodic points where we’ve got to learn to manage our differences.”