Two U.S. Navy warships sailed in international waters past the disputed islands claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, drawing condemnation from the country.
The Higgins guided-missile destroyer and the guided-missile cruiser Antietam came within 12 miles of the Paracel Islands, a string of islands claimed by China in the South China Sea, Reuters reported in an exclusive on Monday.
The two warships carried out maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands, one official told Reuters.
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The maneuver comes just days after the U.S. uninvited China from the RIMPAC naval drills.
The maneuver is also seen as the United States’ latest operation contesting China’s claim to the South China Sea.
“It appears that the U.S. it pursuing a harder line against China in the South China Sea … Of course whether these will actually have any impact on China’s behavior is unclear,” Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, told CNN.
China’s Defense Ministry said it sent aircraft and ships to the U.S. warships telling them to leave.
In a statement, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang called on the U.S. to “immediately stop such provocative actions that encroach upon China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security.”
“China will continue to take all necessary measures to defend the country’s sovereignty and security,” China’s Foreign Ministry said.
Beijing has built a number of artificial islands in the South China Sea with radar facilities, air strips and military installations.
China recently installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three outposts in the disputed South China Sea.
The installment of missile systems would be the first of its kind in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where other nations – including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – dispute the territorial waters, CNBC reported.
China has denied the claim that it is militarizing the artificial islands in the South China Sea and that its development of the islands is for defensive purposes only.