U.S. Warship Sails Close to Islands Claimed by China in South China Sea
The USS Decatur (Photo: public.navy.mil)

The USS Decatur, a U.S. Navy warship conducted a so-called freedom of navigation operation on Sunday as it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Navy warship sailed near the two contested islands in the Spratly Reefs in the South China Sea on Sunday, according to U.S. defence officials. "U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including the South China Sea. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," the official said.

“That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe,” the official said. “FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” the official said.

The Pentagon describes freedom of navigation missions which are meant to enforce the right of free passage for U.S. vessels in international waters, as "routine" operations.

There was no immediate response from the Chinese government. But, Beijing says it has “indisputable sovereignty” over all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters.

The two islands are among seven where China has built heavily fortified artificial islands since 2013, raising fears among its Asian neighbors and in the U.S. that Beijing could use them to enforce its claims to almost all of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is claimed by other South East Asian countries including Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.

The last time the U.S. conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea was in May, when two warships—the USS Antietam and USS Higgins—navigated through the Paracel Islands.

Earlier this week, the U.S. flew B-52 bombers over the South China Sea and East China Sea, areas considered sensitive by the Chinese military. The flights drew a protest from Beijing, which labeled them provocative.