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US destroyer conducts ‘freedom of navigation’ sail in China Sea

The guided-missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108) is underway in the South China Sea as part of the George Washington Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Justin E. Yarborough/Released)

A Pearl Harbor destroyer conducted at least the fifth Navy “freedom of navigation” operation this year in the South China Sea as part of an ongoing campaign to reject China’s claims over most of the area as its territorial seas.

The USS Wayne E. Meyer “sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs (on Wednesday) in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, spokeswoman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet in Japan, said in an email.

“U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Mommsen said.

The latest challenge comes as China complained that the United States is trying to “contain” China following the planned sale of 66 F-16V fighters to Taiwan. A Chinese defense official, Senior Col. Ren Guoqiang, also said that China and Russia now “boast a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” in a “new era.”

Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Mischief Reef is about 150 miles west of Palawan Island in the Philippines.

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China has built up both reefs and constructed airfields and military installations on both.

The United States is worried that China will attempt to restrict military and commercial traffic through the South China Sea, through which an estimated $3.4 trillion in international shipping passes annually.

Twelve nautical miles is the international territorial norm. Beyond that is considered international waters. The Navy said the Wayne E. Meyer and its crew of about 350 are deployed to the Western Pacific “in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Ren, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense, said Thursday that with the Wayne E. Meyer’s passage on Wednesday, the “U.S. military is just repeating its mistakes by trespassing repeatedly into the waters and airspace adjacent to” what it calls the Nansha islands and reefs.

“It severely undermines the rules of international law and China’s sovereignty and security,” he said. “It also imperils the peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

China is “firmly against” the operations and urged the United States “to stop such provocative actions immediately so as not to trigger unexpected incidents.”

Ren criticized the Trump administration’s planned sale of 66 F-16Vs fighters to Taiwan and said that, on July 23, Russian and Chinese forces conducted the first joint strategic air patrol in Northeast Asia. Two H-6K bombers from China and two Tu-95 bombers from Russia jointly patrolled over the Sea of Japan and East Sea, he said.

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© 2019 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser