Two U.S. Navy warships transited near one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea on Monday in a freedom of navigation operation, according to a Reuters report citing official U.S. sources. The two vessels involved in the operation were USS Spruance and USS Preble, two guided-missile destroyers.
The transit saw the two warships travel within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, which is one of seven features in the Spratlys that China converted to artificial islands beginning in 2014.
The goal of the operation was “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” according to a statement from Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, given to CNN.
“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Doss noted. “That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe,” he continued.
The transit follows one last month by USS McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, within 12 nautical miles of features in the Paracel Islands.
The U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation program is designed to protest excessive maritime claims under international law. The United States conducts these operations in the South China Sea and elsewhere against a range of countries, including U.S. allies with excessive maritime claims. In 2017, maritime claims by 22 countries in Asia and elsewhere were the subject of freedom of navigation operations.
Per a 2016 ruling by a Hague-based tribunal, Mischief Reef is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf and is not entitled any 12 nautical mile territorial sea. The feature is claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. China has occupied the feature since 1995.
Mischief Reef is one of three Chinese facilities in the Spratlys — along with Woody Island in the Paracel Islands — to sport an airstrip capable of accommodating even the largest aircraft in the inventories of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF).
Out of all of China’s outposts in the Spratlys, Mischief Reef is the largest. According to an analysis by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Mischief Reef includes a range of military facilities, including point defense installations, communications facilities, possible ammunition storage depots, and hangars capable of accommodating eight combat aircraft and five larger aircraft.
Last year, a PLAN warship attempted to intercept a U.S. Navy destroyer during a freedom of navigation operation in the Spratly Islands near Gaven Reef, nearly causing a collision between the two vessels. The Chinese vessel came within 40 feet of the U.S. warship, according to U.S. officials.