U.S. war­ship sails near Chi­nese-built ‘is­land’ in South China Sea

Austin American-Statesman - - STATESMAN AT THE LEGISLATURE - By Jim Gomez

A MANILA, PHILIP­PINES — U.S. war­ship sailed close to a Chi­nese man-made is­land in the dis­puted South China Sea in an op­er­a­tion that chal­lenged China’s vast ter­ri­to­rial claims in busy in­ter­na­tional wa­ters, a U.S. Navy of­fi­cial said Thurs­day.

The of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press that Chi­nese ves­sels were in the vicin­ity when the USS John S. McCain sailed in a “rou­tine” free­dom-of-nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tion near Mis­chief Reef on Thurs­day. It was not im­me­di­ately clear if the Chi­nese de­manded the U.S. de­stroyer leave as they have done in the past.

The of­fi­cial spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the of­fi­cial was not au­tho­rized to speak to the press about the mat­ter.

China, which claims the South China Sea vir­tu­ally in en­tirety, has protested such re­peated U.S. mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, which Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has con­tin­ued partly to re­as­sure al­lies locked in ter­ri­to­rial rifts with Bei­jing.

Tensions es­ca­lated a few years ago when China be­gan to build seven reefs, in­clud­ing Mis­chief, into is­lands, in­clud­ing three with run­ways, which the U.S. and China’s neigh­bors fear could be used to project Bei­jing’s mil­i­tary might and po­ten­tially ob­struct free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion. China has re­port­edly in­stalled a mis­sile de­fense sys­tem on the new is­lands.

The U.S. is not in­volved in the long-seething dis­putes in the busy and po­ten­tially oi­land gas-rich wa­ters in­volv­ing China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Tai­wan and Viet­nam. Wash­ing­ton, how­ever, has de­clared it in its in­ter­est to en­sure that the con­flicts are re­solved peace­fully and that free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and over­flight re­main un­ham­pered.

In the lat­est sail-by, U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials no­ti­fied Philip­pine coun­ter­parts of the ma­neu­ver, a Philip­pine of­fi­cial told the AP, adding Filipino forces were not in­volved.

Philip­pine marines sta­tioned in a ma­rooned ship on a dis­puted shoal may have mon­i­tored the U.S. Navy op­er­a­tion be­cause they are based near Mis­chief Reef, which is also claimed by the Philip­pines, the of­fi­cial said.

U.S. Pa­cific Fleet spokes­woman Lt. Cmdr. Ni­cole Sch­weg­man said all Navy op­er­a­tions “are con­ducted in ac­cor­dance with in­ter­na­tional law and demon­strate that the United States will fly, sail, and op­er­ate wher­ever in­ter­na­tional law al­lows.”

The dis­putes and North Korea’s re­cent in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests were high on the agenda of an an­nual gath­er­ing of Asia-Pa­cific for­eign min­is­ters last weekend in Manila.

Al­though China op­poses in­clu­sion of the sea dis­putes in in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences, partly to pre­vent the U.S. and other Western gov­ern­ments from in­ter­ven­ing, U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, Aus­tralian For­eign Min­is­ter Julie Bishop and Ja­pan’s new top diplo­mat, Taro Kono, ex­pressed con­cern over ag­gres­sive ac­tions in the wa­ters.

They sought com­pli­ance with a 2016 ar­bi­tra­tion rul­ing that in­val­i­dated China’s claims in the South China Sea. China has dis­missed the rul­ing as a sham.

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