WASHINGTON A U.S. warship carried out a “maneuvering drill” when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, to show Beijing it was not entitled to a territorial sea around it, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The operation near Mischief Reef on Thursday, Pacific time, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has disputes with its neighbors, was the boldest U.S. challenge yet to Chinese island-building in the strategic waterway.
It drew an angry response from China, which President Donald Trump has tried to court in recent weeks to persuade it to take a tougher line on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. [nL1N1IQ2FH]
Analysts say previous U.S. “freedom-of-navigation operations” in the Spratly archipelago involved “innocent passage,” in which a warship effectively recognized a territorial sea by crossing it speedily, without stopping.
On Thursday, the destroyer USS Dewey conducted a “man overboard” exercise, specifically to show that its passage within 12 nautical miles was not innocent passage, U.S. officials said.
“USS Dewey engaged in normal operations by conducting a maneuvering drill inside 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The ship’s actions demonstrated that Mischief Reef is not entitled to its own territorial sea regardless of whether an artificial island has been built on top of it.”
Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, said that freedom of navigation operations are not specific to one country and the Defense Department would release summaries of these operations in an annual report and not sooner.
“We are continuing regular FONOPS, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” Ross said, using an acronym for freedom of navigation operations.
The Pentagon has not…