US sails warship near contested islands in South China Sea

US sails warship near contested islands in South China Sea
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The US Navy sailed a warship within 12 nautical miles of two contested islands in the South China Sea Wednesday, part of what it calls a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP).

The guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer “sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” US Navy Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, a spokesperson for the US 7th Fleet, told CNN in a statement.

“The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” she said, adding that freedom of navigation operations “are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

The US has long accused China of installing military facilities on man-made islands at Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef.

A US defense official told CNN that a Chinese military vessel followed the US warship during the operation, adding that all interactions were safe and professional.

US Navy freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea occur regularly. In late May, two US warships performed an operation near a Chinese-controlled island in the Paracels group in the northern part of the South China Sea.

China normally responds to similar US Navy operations with a government statement calling on Washington to “immediately stop such provocative actions that encroach upon China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security,” as spokesman Lu Kang said after the Paracels operation in May.

And after Wednesday’s US operation, Li Huamin, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command, accused Washington of “navigational bullying that … severely harms peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Also Wednesday, the state-sponsored Global Times published a report that quoted Chinese analysts as saying that Washington was intent on ramping up tensions.

“As the US continues to send warships into the South China Sea, Washington has become the main villain” in the region, Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the People’s Liberation Army Naval Military Studies Research Institute, is quoted as saying.

China should “speed up our defense system implementation on the islands and reefs in the region,” Tian Shichen, a retired People’s Liberation Army Navy captain, told Global Times.

The Global Times report followed strong language by Washington earlier in the week on Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

On Monday the Pentagon issued a statement saying it “is greatly concerned by China’s continued efforts to violate the rules-based international order throughout the Indo-Pacific,” saying that China had “resumed its coercive interference in Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities in the South China Sea.”

“China will not win the trust of its neighbors nor the respect of the international community by maintaining its bullying tactics,” the statement added.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials have denied the US Navy’s request to visit Qingdao port, Mommsen told CNN, a move that comes after Beijing similarly rejected two port visits by American warships to Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Washington and Beijing remain locked in a trade dispute that has involved the leveling of tariffs and has roiled the world’s financial markets.

CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to this report.