U.S. warship sails near Chinese-occupied island in disputed South China Sea

The Pentagon has sent a warship near a disputed island in the South China Sea occupied by China, U.S. officials told The Japan Times said late Sunday, following a series of moves that appeared to highlight growing frustration with Beijing by the administration of President Donald Trump.

The patrol, the second known “freedom of navigation” operation under Trump, involved the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Stethem guided-missile destroyer and was conducted earlier Sunday within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Triton Island in the Paracel archipelago, the officials confirmed.

The tiny islet is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, and is not one of the seven fortified man-made islands, which are located in the South China Sea’s Spratly chain further south.

Freedom of navigation patrols (FONOPS) represent “a challenge to excessive maritime claims,” according to the U.S. Defense Department. The significance of the distance of 12 nautical miles derives from the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which generally grants coastal states jurisdiction over seas within 12 nautical miles of the coast.

The patrol was believed to be the second near Triton Island after a similar FONOP under the administration of President Barack Obama in January 2016.

Sunday’s operation was first reported by Fox News, which said the Stethem had been trailed by a Chinese warship during its voyage.

Ahead of the operation, there was growing speculation that the White House has been frustrated not only with Beijing’s moves in the strategic waterway, but also its failure to reign in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

This frustration was seen in a tweet sent by Trump late last month.

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” he wrote at the time.

And on Friday, in moves that the White House said were not aimed at Beijing, the Trump administration unveiled new sanctions against a Chinese bank linked to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, a day after announcing a new $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.

However, Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, told The Japan Times in a statement that “FONOPs 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,” Knight 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,” he added.

China has continued to militarize its outposts there — despite a pledge to the contrary — 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.

Tokyo does not have any claims in the waters, but is embroiled in a separate dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands, which are known as the Diaoyus in China.

Of China’s seven man-made islets in the Spratly chain, three boast military-grade airfields — including Mischief Reef, the site of the last FONOP in May — despite a 2015 vow by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further “militarize” them. Beijing has called the moves purely defensive.

On Friday, new satellite imagery published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, showed new missile shelters and radar and communications facilities being built on the Mischief, Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs in the Spratlys.

The building of military and dual-use infrastructure on those islands — the three biggest in the archipelago — had reached the final stages in March, with the naval, air, radar and defensive facilities largely complete, the AMTI reported at the time.

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 them.

In recent days, China has also showcased its growing naval prowess, on Wednesday launching the first of its newest class of destroyer called the Type 055, which many analysts say resembles the size and capability of the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh-Burke guided-missile destroyers, the same class as the Stethem.

China also sent its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and its accompanying ships through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday for its first port call to Hong Kong.

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