China’s Foreign Ministry said authorities monitored and warned the USS Lassen as it entered what China claims as a 12-mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago, where the Philippines has competing claims, on Tuesday.
“The actions of the US warship have threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardised the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability,” the ministry said on its website. “The Chinese side expresses its strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition,” the statement said.
The sail-past fits a US policy of pushing back against China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. US ally the Philippines welcomed the move as a way of helping maintain “a balance of power”.
Since 2013, China has accelerated the creation of new outposts by piling sand atop reefs and atolls then adding buildings, ports and airstrips big enough to handle bombers and fighter jets – activities seen as a bid to alter the territorial status quo by changing the geography.
Navy officials had said the sail-past was necessary to assert the US position that China’s manmade islands cannot be considered sovereign territory with the right to surrounding waters. International law permits military vessels “innocent passage” in transiting other countries’ seas without notification. China’s Foreign Ministry, though, labeled the ship’s actions illegal.
The US says it does not take a position on sovereignty over the South China Sea but insists on freedom of navigation and overflight. About 30 per cent of global trade passes through the South China Sea, which also has rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea mineral deposits.
China says it respects the right of navigation but has never specified the exact legal status of its maritime claims. China says virtually all of the South China Sea belongs to it, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim either parts or all of it.
Beijing’s response mirrored its actions in May when a navy dispatcher warned off a US Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work.
A Defence Department official said the patrol was completed without incident.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment.