China hit back at the U.S. on Wednesday after a Navy warship sailed near disputed islands China has claimed as its own in the South China Sea, calling the action “provocative” and a sign of “maritime hegemony.”
The USS Wayne E. Meyer guided-missile destroyer conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation and sailed within 12 nautical miles, or 14 miles, off Fiery Cross and Mischief reefs, both part of the Spratly Islands archipelago that China has militarized.
Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claimed some of the islands.
“The facts prove that the United States’ so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ is actually an assertion of maritime hegemony that ignores international law, seriously harms China’s sovereignty and security interests, and seriously harms peace and stability in the South China Sea region,” Chinese military spokesman Li Huamin said.
“We urge the U.S. side to immediately stop such kinds of provocative acts, to avoid causing unexpected incidents,” he added, as Reuters reported.
The South China Sea, considered international waters, has played a crucial role in trade; one-third of the world’s shipping passes through it annually.
U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr. Reann Mommsen confirmed the operation, saying it was conducted “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”
“U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” the Seventh Fleet said in a statement reported by USNI News.
“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe,” the fleet said. “We conduct routine and regular freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”
The United States has conducted four FONOPs in the South China Sea so far this year.