A US Navy destroyer sailed near one of the most important man-made and Chinese controlled islands in the South China Sea on Monday, in a freedom of navigation mission that Beijing denounced as illegal.
While the United States frequently makes such voyages to challenge China and other states’ territorial claims in the strategic waterway, the latest one took place as Beijing staged more war games around Taiwan.
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet said the USS Milius engaged in “normal operations” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, once a reef submerged at high tide and where China has built an airport and other facilities.
“Under customary international law … features like Mischief Reef that are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement.
“The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterisation under international law.”
China’s People’s Liberation Army said the US ship had “illegally” entered waters near the reef without Chinese approval, and its forces had monitored the vessel and warned it.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the surrounding maritime area,” its Southern Theatre Command said.
Mischief Reef lies to the west of the Philippines’ Palawan island.
The 7th Fleet said that at the end of the operation, the Milius exited the “excessive claim area” and continued operations in the South China Sea.
Last month, China and the US sparred over the movement of the same ship, which China said had entered its territorial waters in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands.
The move risks stoking tensions with China, which has denounced similar operations as an infringement of its sovereignty and security. This week, the US plans to start annual military exercises with the Philippines, which are set to be larger than in previous years as ties warm between the long-time allies.
Beijing asserts it has rights to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, whose other claimants are the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei. The US refuses to recognise China’s claims, and regularly conducts what it calls freedom-of-navigation operations to challenge them.
The US announcement also came as China’s military said it had begun a third day of military drills around Taiwan amid growing tensions between China and the US in the region.
The exercises, involving aircraft and ships near Taiwan, came after the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, returned from a visit to the US, which included meetings House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other US politicians.
On Monday, the final scheduled day of drills, China’s military carried out aerial and naval blockade drills around Taiwan with a Chinese aircraft carrier joining in combat patrols as Taipei reported another surge of warplanes near the island.
Chinese state television said aircraft, including nuclear-capable H-6 bombers armed with live missiles, and warships staged drills to “form a multi-directional island-encompasing blockade situation”.
“In the Taiwan Strait, the north-west and south-west of Taiwan and the waters east of Taiwan (Chinese forces) took the initiative to attack, giving full play to their performance advantages, flexibly manoeuvring to seize favourable positions, and advancing at high speed to deter opponents,” the report said.
The Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army said the aircraft carrier Shandong also took part in combat patrols, and showed fighters taking off from its deck.
Taiwan has been tracking the Shandong since last week in the Pacific Ocean.
Taiwan’s defence ministry published a map on Monday of the previous 24 hours of Chinese air force activities, showing four carrier-based Chinese J-15 fighters operating over the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan’s east.
The ministry said that as of mid-morning on Monday, it had spotted 59 military aircraft and 11 ships around Taiwan, and that the Shandong carrier group was drilling in the western Pacific.
The Shandong conducted air operations in waters close to Japan’s Okinawan islands on Sunday, Japan’s defence ministry said on Monday.
Jet fighters and helicopters took off and landed on the carrier 120 times between Friday and Sunday, with the carrier, three other warships and a support vessel coming within 230 kilometres of Japan’s Miyako island, the defence ministry said.
Japan has been following China’s military drills around Taiwan “with great interest”, a top government spokesperson said.
Japan has long worried about China’s military activities in the area given how close southern Japanese islands are to Taiwan.
Taiwan’s military has repeatedly said it would respond calmly to China’s drills and not provoke conflict.
Life in Taiwan has continued normally with no signs of panic or disruption, and civilian flights are operating as usual.
“Most normal people probably aren’t afraid, with the main reason being that everyone thinks that China will certainly not start a war,” said retiree and former soldier Tang Pao-hsiung, 78.