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Two U.S. Destroyers Challenge China's Claims in Spratly Islands

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The USS Preble under way in the Philippine Sea, April 18, 2019 (USN)

By The Maritime Executive 2019-05-06 21:08:27

On Monday, the U.S. Navy destroyers USS Preble and USS Chung-Hoon sailed within 12 nm of two Chinese-held land features in the Spratly Islands, according to U.S. Seventh Fleet. 

Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for Seventh Fleet, told Reuters that the mission was undertaken in order "to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law."

Between 2014 and 2018, China built a string of well-defended bases across the Spratly Islands. By using land reclamation to enlarge reefs claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighboring nations, it gradually constructed government outposts atop newly-formed acreage. Beijing maintained that the sites were civilian installations until April 2018, when China's ministry of defense insisted that China has a "natural right as a sovereign nation" to deploy armed forces to the new bases. 

The U.S. Navy routinely challenges Chinese sovereignty claims in the waters near these sites by sailing through without prior permission, as allowed under UNCLOS. The Preble and Chung-Hoon's transit was the third such freedom of navigation operation (FONOPS) patrol in the region this year. 

As it has after past FONOPS missions, China's foreign ministry issued an objection to the U.S. Navy's presence in the Spratly Islands. 

"The trespass of US warships is a violation of China's sovereignty. It undermines peace, security and good order in the relevant waters. China deplores and firmly opposes such moves," said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a press briefing on Monday. "China urges the US to stop such provocations, respect China's sovereignty and security interests and regional countries' efforts to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea. China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend national sovereignty and security, and safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea."