WASHINGTON – The Navy challenged China and other countries’ “excessive” attempts to restrict navigation in the South China Sea on Saturday, sailing the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur near disputed islands there, according to the Pentagon.
The “freedom of navigation operation” took the vessel within 12 miles of Triton Island, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. The operation took place late Friday ET.
The Curtis Wilbur’s passage makes good on pledges by President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter to assert legitimate claims to sail freely in international waters, Davis said. There were no Chinese ships in the area when the Curtis Wilbur sailed past.
“This operation demonstrated, as the president and secretary have stated, that we will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” Davis said. “That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe.”
China, Taiwan and Vietnam have attempted to restrict navigation around islands and other features in the area, seeking prior permission from vessels sailing near them. Their claims do not comply with international law, Davis said, and no permission was sought before the Curtis Wilbur sailed past.
The South China Sea has become a flashpoint of conflict as China and countries bordering it seek control of trade routes and mineral deposits beneath the sea floor. China has been hauling massive amounts of sand and other material to build on reefs and other features, setting up landing strips.
“This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and others, not about territorial claims to land features,” Davis said. “The United States takes no position on competing sovereignty claims between the parties to naturally formed land features in the South China Sea. We do take a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries. All maritime claims must comply with international law.”
In October, the Navy sailed the USS Lassen, another guided missile destroyer, near a different set of islands and reefs claimed by China. That move drew strong rebuke from China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the Lassen's route threatened China's sovereignty and "damaged regional peace and stability."