South China sea
South China sea

The United States has sailed two warships past a handful of disputed islands in the South China Sea for the first time, a move that drew the ire of Beijing, CNN reported.

A US official told CNN that the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and the cruiser USS Antietam sailed within 12 miles of four of the Paracel Islands in its what the US Navy calls a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP), which are meant to enforce the right of free passage in international waters.

Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, told CNN it was the first time under the Obama and Trump administrations that more than one US ship had been involved in such an operation.

“It appears that the US it pursuing a harder line against China in the South China Sea … Of course whether these will actually have any impact on China’s behavior is unclear,” he said.

China’s Foreign and Defense ministries accused the Washington of encroaching on Beijing’s territory by sailing past the islands. A statement from ministry spokesman Lu Kang called on the US to “immediately stop such provocative actions that encroach upon China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security.”

One of the islands involved in the FONOP was Woody island, believed to have been used for military drills that involved Chinese nuclear –capable bombers earlier this month.

But despite the recent news, Storey said it was more likely the FONOP had been planned months in advance as a show of support for US allies ahead of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to Singapore in the coming week. Mattis will be in Singapore for the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting of the world’s top defense analysts and government ministers.

“He could point to the FONOPS in the Paracels around five days earlier and say, ‘We’re protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea like we do around the world’,” he said.


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