Chinese anger as US Navy destroyer sails close to disputed islands

South China Sea freedom of navigation patrols test Beijing's territorial claims

A US Navy destroyer has sailed close to a Chinese-built artificial island in the South China Sea, the first such patrol in the hotly contested waterway since US president Donald Trump came to power.

The manoeuvre in the Spratly Islands came as China’s president Xi Jinping called for efforts to build the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy into “a strong and modern force to realise the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation and the dream of a strong army”.

The freedom-of-navigation patrols, where international ships or aircraft approach features claimed by China to test their assertions to exclusive access, are typically met with robust protests from Beijing and its official organs.

"It should be said the acts of the US side seriously disrupted the spirit of dialogue and consultation," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news briefing.


“China is determined to safeguard its own interests, sovereignty, security and maritime rights. We strongly urge the US side to immediately correct their mistakes. Stop making provocations that damage Chinese sovereignty and security interests,” said Mr Lu.

Freedom of navigation patrols

Earlier this month, Pacific Fleet commander Scott Swift said the US Navy would challenge China's claims to exclusive access in the South China Sea using "freedom of navigation" patrols.

US Navy officials said the USS Dewey sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Mischief Reef, one of three locations in the Spratlys where China has reclaimed land – the other two are the Subi and Fiery Cross reefs . China has built a 3,000 metre-long airstrip that can handle bombers in the island chain.

China's claims in the region are disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The South China Sea has been relatively quiet for several months, because Mr Trump has been working on building relations with Beijing to get its help in controlling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Philippines' president Rodrigo Duterte recently said Mr Xi had warned him China was prepared to go to war if the Philippines tried to drill for oil in the South China Sea.

During an inspection tour of the PLA navy headquarters, Chinese leader Xi gave a strong pep talk to the navy.

Contravening international law

In April, China launched its second aircraft carrier, its first built domestically, which is a key element in its policy of building a “blue water” navy capable of patrolling far-flung interests and backing up Beijing’s growing diplomatic influence with military muscle.

“You continuously fight wind and waves. Thanks for your hard work!” he said. “I hope all you comrades perform duties loyally and merit the trust of the party and the people.”

The Pentagon is committed to regular freedom of navigation operations and said in a statement it would do more in the future.

The nationalist newspaper Global Times said "freedom of navigation" patrols had been expected during the Trump era.

“If Washington tones up the incident, it means it intends to make a bigger mess in the South China Sea,” the paper said. “China’s rise to power in the South China Sea is based on international law and the increasing strength of the country,” the editorial said, in remarks that contradict a ruling by an international maritime arbitration tribunal in The Hague saying China’s expansion in the South China Sea directly contravenes international law.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing