The latest U.S. patrol, first reported by Reuters, is expected to anger Beijing and could further escalate tensions over the South China Sea. The destroyer sailed within waters claimed by China, close to but not within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits of the islands, the officials said.
In the last three U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea within the last year, U.S. warships cruised within 12 nautical miles of islands claimed by Beijing. The actions drew angry responses from China, which has accused the United States of stirring up trouble there.
The latest operation comes just after the volatile president of the Philippines announced, during a visit to China, his “separation” from Washington and realignment with Beijing. The Philippines has been a key ally of the United States and a territorial rival of Beijing in the South China Sea. Rodrigo Duterte took office as Philippine president in June.
Duterte’s announcement on Thursday was a significant turnaround after a tribunal in The Hague ruled that China did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous Philippine administration and strongly backed by the United States.
But in Washington a person close to the matter said the latest naval operation was not timed for Duterte’s China visit this week and that planning for the patrol had long been in the works.
U.S. officials have said the operations will continue despite Beijing’s protests, but the Obama administration has been criticized in Congress for not conducting them more regularly and robustly.
Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the administration was likely to face further criticism after opting for relatively uncontroversial challenges to China in all of its freedom-of-navigation operations in the past year.
“They will have essentially performed the same FONOP, meaning an objection to China’s demand for prior notification, four times in a year,” he said.
“That is not only redundant, but it does nothing to put a spotlight on the other, much more worrying, restrictions China is placing on freedom of navigation.”
China has been placing more serious restrictions on movement, he said, around artificial islands China has built on reefs in the Spratly chain, notably Mischief Reef.