The U.S. carried out its first patrol in the disputed South China Sea under Donald Trump’s administration, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The USS Dewey sailed within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands on Wednesday in a "freedom of navigation” operation, according to the officials speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
China said the U.S. navy warship illegally entered the waters without permission of the Chinese government. The Chinese navy identified the U.S. warship, warned and expelled it, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said at a press briefing.
"Such moves have undermined China's sovereignty and security, and were very likely to cause unexpected air and sea accidents," Lu said.
China's Defense Ministry said it had made representations to U.S. officials over the matter.
The U.S. had conducted the so-called “freedom of navigation” patrols under the previous administration, where ships or planes passed near features in the South China Sea claimed by China, to test its assertions of exclusive access. It worries that China’s current construction of islands, and build-up of military facilities in the sea, would limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
"We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We operate in accordance with international law," Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in a statement.
The exercises are "not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements," he added.
Territorial waters are generally defined by U.N. convention as extending, at most, 12 nautical miles from a state's coastline. An international arbitration court in The Hague invalidated China's claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea in a landmark ruling last year, to which China objected.
"China has indisputable sovereignty of the Nansha Islands and its adjacent waters. China always respects and maintains the freedom of navigation and overflight of various countries in the South China Sea in accordance with international law," Lu said. "However, we firmly oppose any country damaging China's sovereignty and security in the name of navigation and overflight freedom."
The latest U.S. patrol is the first of its kind since October. Earlier this month, the U.S. Navy said there is "no change in policy” toward the region under Trump and it will still challenge China's claims to disputed features in the South China Sea.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump accused China of militarizing parts of the South China Sea. But since meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida last month, Trump has praised him and asked China to do more on North Korea.
The U.S. military has been requesting, through the chain of command, for freedom of navigation operations since last February. Two others were requested by the U.S. Navy.
However, all those requests had been turned down by top Pentagon officials before they even made it to President Trump’s desk, the New York Times reported on May 2.