WASHINGTON—The Pentagon sent a warship through the South China Sea on Tuesday in another operation meant to
counter China’s territorial claims to artificial islands there, as relations between the two nations grow increasingly
strained over the international dispute.
A guided-missile destroyer, the U.S.S. William P. Lawrence, navigated to within 12 nautical miles of a land feature in
the South China Sea known as Fiery Cross Reef, according to a senior defense official.
Fiery Cross consists of approximately 700 acres of largely dredged materials from the ocean floor, to which China and
other nations lay claim. In recent years, China has built a 10,000 foot runway, opened a port and built other military
facilities on the island.
The destroyer took one pass past the island in an operation the defense official described as routine. Typically,
Chinese military or civilian officials attempt to make radio contact with U.S. Navy ships to tell crews to keep their
ships out of what they consider to be Chinese territorial waters. The official didn’t provide any additional detail of
Chinese officials didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment. Although Chinese officials have said they don’t
intend to “militarize” the islands, they have built long runways, military housing facilities and port areas. Beijing
has accused Washington of militarizing the region’s waters through flights and voyages meant to counter China’s
The navigation near Fiery Cross was intended to send a signal to China since Beijing’s activities in that region are
considered the most aggressive. But technically the operation also countered the claims of other claimants of the
island, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.
The operation amounted to what is known in international sea law as “innocent passage,” in effect, challenging
attempts by China, Taiwan and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights around the features they claim. The Philippines’
maritime claims are different from the others because the Philippines’ claims don’t attempt to restrict navigation
around the island, defense officials said.
The choice of Fiery Cross for the U.S. warship’s operation was likely part of the U.S. signal. Last month, a high-
ranking Chinese general visited Fiery Cross, marking the highest-level Chinese military official to visit any of the
islands in the South China Sea in recent years. The visit was intended by the Chinese to demonstrate the importance
Beijing puts on the islands there, which sit more than 600 miles off the coast of China.
Tensions have been high over the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who was
expected to visit Beijing in April, postponed his visit. Last month, the Chinese told American diplomatic officials that
the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier, and a flotilla of other American warships wouldn’t be welcome for a long-
planned port visit in Hong Kong.
The U.S. resumed conducting navigation operations in the South China Sea last fall after a four-year hiatus. The first
such operation was conducted near a feature called Subi Reef, which, like Fiery Reef, is part of the Spratly island
chain. That was followed by another freedom of navigation voyage in January in the Paracels, a separate island chain in
the South China Sea. Those operations, along with other surface and air patrols by the U.S. in the region, constitute
Washington’s effort to counter Beijing’s claims to islands there.
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires 05-10-160135ET Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.