A U.S. Navy warship sailed by islands claimed by China in the South China Sea on Wednesday in a freedom of navigation operation, marking the latest move by Washington to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the contested waters.
The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said destroyer USS Russell “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law.”
China claims sovereignty over the entire archipelago, but Brunei, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have lodged competing claims for some or all of the islands.
China’s extensive territorial claims in the resource-rich waters have become a hot button issue in an increasingly testy Sino-U.S. relationship. The two countries are at odds over trade, the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong, Taiwan and accusations of human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims.
Washington has denounced what it called Beijing’s attempts to bully neighbors with competing interests. China has repeatedly denounced what it called U.S. efforts to foment unrest in the region and interfere in what it regards as its internal affairs.
The U.S. ship’s pass by the Spratly Islands follows a joint exercise by two U.S. carrier groups in South China Sea and another warship sailing near Chinese-controlled Paracel islands earlier this month. Those actions had suggested that the Biden administration was not about to scale back operations challenging Beijing’s claims after the ramp-up seen during the Trump administration. —Reporting by Se Young Lee in Washington; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore