Mr. Trump has pushed China to use its influence to compel North Korea to stop its missile tests and nuclear weapons development. On Thursday, he suggested that he might spare China trade penalties if it did more to curtail North Korea. “If China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade,” he said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not commented about the escalating crisis on its website, and its regular news briefings are in summer recess. Chinese leaders have also not commented publicly.
But Beijing’s reaction to the latest American naval operation has underscored that China has its own geopolitical sore points with the White House, including weapons sales to Taiwan and the repeated freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
American officials told Reuters that the John S. McCain passed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, which is part of the Spratly Islands. The reef is some 150 miles from Palawan, the nearest major Philippine island, and more than 650 miles southeast of Hainan, a Chinese island-province that reaches into the South China Sea.
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, said in a statement on its website late Thursday that the passage by the John S. McCain violated Chinese and international law and “did serious harm to Chinese sovereignty and security.”
The United States and its regional allies have accused Beijing of inflaming tensions in the South China Sea by expanding islands and reefs into military installations, refusing multilateral negotiations over overlapping territorial claims and spurning a ruling last year from an international tribunal that rejected the legality of China’s claims to much of the sea.
Mischief Reef is controlled by China but also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. China has used dredged sand to expand the original reef into an artificial island big enough to hold an airstrip.
Under international law, countries can claim territorial sea up to 12 nautical miles from islands under their sovereignty. But low outcrops and reefs do not create such a right, nor do artificial islands built on them. The passage by the John S. McCain sent the implicit signal that the United States does not accept any territorial sea claims around Mischief Reef, regardless of who claims sovereignty.
China has been ambiguous about its precise territorial claims around such artificial islands. But Mr. Geng said the United States was the culprit in threatening peace in the sea.
“Certain external forces are swimming against the current and continuing to stir up trouble under the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation,’” Mr. Geng said. “This clearly shows just who doesn’t want to see stability maintained in the South China Sea, and who is the biggest factor in pushing the ‘militarization’ of the South China Sea.”