BEIJING — A U.S. Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island claimed by China in the South China Sea on Wednesday, an operation that showed a new firmness by the Trump administration in its dealings with Beijing.
The USS Dewey sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, not far from the Philippines, U.S. defense officials said.
The operation may tamp down concerns among U.S. allies that the Trump administration had been unwilling to confront China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as it seeks Beijing’s cooperation on issues like halting North Korea’s nuclear program.
Until the operation Wednesday, the Pentagon had turned down requests from the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, under the command of Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., for such maneuvers. Wednesday’s operation was the first freedom of navigation operation since President Donald Trump took office.
Trump’s initial reluctance to confront China’s territorial claims once he became president came despite his criticism during the campaign of the Obama administration’s handling of the issue. In an interview with The New York Times in March 2016, Trump said that Beijing had built in the South China Sea “a military fortress, the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen.”
The naval operation Wednesday was being interpreted as a welcome sign of U.S. engagement in the South China Sea by allies of the United States in the region.
Even so, Australia, whose economy is highly dependent on exports to China, has declined to participate in the U.S.-led military operations, arguing that China now controls the Spratly Islands, where Beijing has placed military weapons and runways for fighter jets.
“Australia is extremely reluctant to participate in freedom of navigation operations that involve flying over or sailing through the 12 nautical miles around the islands,” said Alan Dupont, a former Australian defense intelligence official.
“The Australian government feels it would be provocative and upset China,” Dupont said. “It feels it would be counterproductive now that China has militarized the islands.”
Allies would be watching to see how consistent the Trump administration would be on the South China Sea, some analysts said.