On Friday, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced that a U.S. Navy warship had sailed near one of China’s disputed possessions in the Spratly Islands to stage a freedom of navigation operation. The Ministry called the operation a “serious military provocation.”
The operation was subsequently confirmed by a Reuters report, which cited anonymous U.S. officials, noting that a U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese artificial island at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea.
The vessel in question was USS Mustin; the operation is the second publicly reported freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Mischief Reef. The most recent publicly reported U.S. Navy FONOP took place in January 2018, when USS Hopper, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, sailed near Scarborough Shoal—a feature occupied by Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels, but without an artificial island.
Ren Guoqiang, a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Defense, said that the patrol was a provocation, repeating China’s standard response to these U.S. operations near disputed features in the South China Sea, which have been ongoing since October 2015. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Navy has increased the frequency of these operations.
China “resolutely opposes any illegal provocation in the name of ‘freedom of navigation,'” Ren said. “We ask the US to respect the sovereignty and security of China, respect the will of countries in the region, who want peace, stability and tranquility, and not to trouble out of nothing,” he added.
“We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told Reuters.
The latest U.S. FONOP near Mischief Reef came just one day after the Trump administration announced $60 billion in tariffs on Chinese exports, but the operation was pre-planned by U.S. Pacific Command. U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea have roughly occurred with a frequency of one operation every two months since May 2017, when the first FONOP under the Trump administration took place.
Because of Mischief Reef’s status as a feature that is underwater at high tide, it is not entitled to any 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. For this reason, the two publicly known U.S. FONOPs near this feature have purposely involved actions that are excluded by the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea’s (UNCLOS) provisions on innocent passage.
These types of FONOPs seek to emphasize that the U.S. Navy — and international law — regard the waters around Mischief Reef as international waters, where high seas freedoms apply. During the latest operation, USS Mustin carried out maneuvering operations.