The U.S. Navy sent a guided missile destroyer within 12 miles of a man-made Chinese island in the South China Sea on Tuesday, a senior military official told CNN.
The official said the transit of the USS William P. Lawrence near Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea was a deliberate act to show that the United States considers the area as international waters despite China’s claim of sovereignty.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12 nautical miles is considered the limit at which a nation’s rule extends off its shores.
The U.S. official said the Lawrence passed through the area “without incident.”
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman criticized the U.S. Navy’s move.
“The relevant Chinese department took measures of monitoring, tracking and warning in accordance with the law. I have to point out, this action by the U.S. side threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability,” spokesman Lu Kang said.
The South China Sea is the subject of several rival — and often messy — territorial claims, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam disputing sovereignty of several island chains and nearby waters.
Fiery Cross Reef is part of the disputed Spratly Islands. In January, China said it had completed building a runway on the island, one of three it has been building there with dredged material.
Tuesday’s passage of the Lawrence is the third the U.S. Navy has conducted in the South China Sea.
Last October, the destroyer USS Lassen passed within 12 miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands.
And in January, the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 miles of Triton Island in the disputed Paracel Islands archipelago.