The U.S. Navy has sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea — the first so-called freedom of navigation patrol under the administration of President Donald Trump — a report said Thursday.
The operation, which involved the USS Dewey, a guided-missile destroyer, was conducted Wednesday around Mischief Reef in the Spratly chain of the strategic waterway, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing anonymous U.S. officials.
Freedom of navigation patrols (FONOPS) represent “a challenge to excessive maritime claims,” according to the U.S. Defense Department. The significance of 12 nautical miles marker derives from the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which generally grants coastal states jurisdiction over a 12-nautical mile territorial sea emanating from a coast.
In a statement to The Japan Times, the Pentagon refused to confirm or deny the report.
However, photos posted to an official social media account of the USS Dewey appeared to show the vessel transiting the South China Sea.
“We are continuing regular FONOPS, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross said. “Summaries of these operations will be released publicly in the annual FONOPS report, and not sooner.”
The most recent annual FONOPS report was published in February.
Ross said U.S. forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, “including in the South China Sea,” adding that these operations “are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allow.”
The move is likely to anger China, which despite a pledge to the contrary, has continued to militarize the waters as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
China has built seven man-made islets in the hotly contested Spratlys, with three boasting military-grade airfields — including Mischief Reef — despite a 2015 vow by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further “militarize” them. Beijing has called the moves purely defensive.
Ross, however, said any operation was not focused on a single nation.
“FONOPS are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” Ross said. “In FY 2016, we conducted FONOPS challenging excessive maritime claims of 22 coastal states, including allies and partners.”
A think tank reported in late March that major construction at three of China’s large man-made islands in the Spratly’s had wrapped up, allowing Beijing to deploy fighter jets and mobile missile launchers to the area at any time.
The building of military and dual-use infrastructure on the so-called Big 3 islands in the contested Spratly chain — Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs — had reached the final stages, with the naval, air, radar and defensive facilities largely complete, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).
All three islands boast hangers that can accommodate 24 fighter jets and four larger planes, including surveillance, transport, refueling or bomber aircraft. Hardened shelters with retractable roofs for mobile missile launchers have also been built on the three.
China has also constructed significant radar and sensor arrays on all three islands, positioning them close to point defense structures to provide protection against air or missile strikes.