China has accused the United States of staging a “serious political and military provocation” after an American warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea.
The USS Stethem, an American guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, a small landmass in the Paracel Islands chain, on Sunday, a U.S. defense official said, marking the second such operation since President Trump took office.
But China, which has enjoyed de facto control of the Paracels since expelling Vietnam in a military engagement in 1974, said the islands, which it calls the Xisha, are an “inherent part of Chinese territory.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Stethem had “trespassed” there, entering the waters “without China’s approval.”
“Its behavior has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, disrupted peace, security and order of the relevant waters and put in jeopardy the facilities and personnel on the Chinese islands, and thus constitutes a serious political and military provocation,” spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement.
“The Chinese side is dissatisfied with and opposed to the relevant behavior of the U.S. side.”
The incident is the latest flare-up in relations in just a few days, and came only hours before Trump spoke by telephone to Chinese President Xi Jinping, on Sunday night in Washington and Monday morning in Beijing.
China’s state media said the two men discussed “brewing issues,” but gave no further information – except to say that North Korea was expected to top their agenda, while also noting the call came soon after an arms deal with Taiwan was announced.
Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry expressed outrage over twin American announcements: of a major package of arms sales to Taiwan, and fresh sanctions on North Korea that target a Chinese bank. Lu said then that the “wrong moves go against the consensus achieved at Mar-a-Lago,” when Trump and Xi met in Florida in April.
U.S. officials said the navy’s action, known as a freedom-of-navigation operation, or FONOP, was planned in advance, and was not targeted at any one country or aimed at making a political statement.
But China accused the United States of deliberately stirring up trouble in the South China Sea and staging “provocative operations” that violate China’s sovereignty and threaten its security. “The Chinese side will continue to take all necessary means to defend national sovereignty and security,” Lu said.
Triton Island is claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. In May, a U.S. destroyer sailed well within 12 miles of Mischief Reef, a man-made island in the Spratly Islands to the south of the Paracels.
Fox News, which first reported on Sunday’s incident, said a Chinese warship tailed the Stethem as it sailed past the island, although it is unclear how close the ship came to the American vessel.
The 12-mile line is the internationally recognized distance that separates the shores of a sovereign nation from international waters. The United States has routinely conducted voyages within this 12-mile limit around islands in the South China Sea as a message to countries such as China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Many of these nations have laid claim to islands in the South China Sea, some of which are no more than tiny strips of sand and reef. The last time the U.S. Navy sailed near Triton Island was in January 2016, when the USS Curtis Wilbur came within 12 miles of its shores. The Pentagon did not notify any of the island’s claimants before that operation.
Capt. Charlie Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, did not confirm the Sunday operation but said in an emailed statement that the Navy routinely conducts FONOPs, and that the operations are not “about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”
“U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” Brown said. “All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.”
In the Paracels and Spratlys, China has built up a number of small islands into fully functional military facilities complete with airfields and antiaircraft defenses. The White House, in both the Obama and Trump administrations, has seen the militarization of the South China Sea as a threat to stability in the resource-rich region, where ships from numerous countries have long fished.
U.S.-China relations appeared to be on an upswing after Trump said he and Xi had enjoyed “great chemistry” in Florida, and expressed confidence in China’s efforts to apply pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear and missile defense program.
But officials say frustration has grown in the White House with China’s reluctance to tighten the screws on North Korea as much as Washington would have liked.
The Stethem, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, is based in Japan.