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Beijing Protests US Navy Patrol in Sea 05/25 06:11

   BEIJING (AP) -- China protested a U.S. Navy patrol that sent a guided 
missile destroyer near a group of man-made islands in the South China Sea on 
Thursday, in the first American challenge to Beijing's claims to the waters 
since President Donald Trump took office.

   China's Defense Ministry told reporters that it had sought an explanation 
with U.S. officials over the incident, which Beijing said involved the USS 
Dewey and took place around Mischief Reef, one of a chain of artificial islands 
China has built and fortified to assert its claims over the strategic waterway.

   While U.S. officials did not immediately comment on Thursday's operation, 
Washington has in the past insisted that it has the right to conduct so-called 
freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, in the area because it is in 
international waters. The Navy conducted similar operations under former 
President Barack Obama, but had not done so since Trump took office and began 
talking up the prospect of warming ties with Beijing and cooperating over 
issues like North Korea.

   A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the U.S. destroyer had 
"trespassed" near islands over which China has "indisputable sovereignty."

   "We urge the U.S. to correct this mistake and stop taking further actions so 
as to avoid hurting peace and security in the region and long-term cooperation 
between the two countries," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.

   Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Ren Guoqiang told reporters at a monthly 
news briefing that a pair of Chinese navy frigates had warned off the American 
ship after it entered the area without China's permission.

   "We urge the American side to take concrete efforts to correct its 
wrongdoings and add more positive energy to the military-to-military 
relationship," Ren said.

   The spokesman added that the U.S. actions not only posed the risk of 
sparking an accident at sea but would "only motivate the Chinese military to 
enhance its capacity."

   China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has aggressively tried 
to fortify its foothold in recent years by transforming seven mostly submerged 
reefs into island outposts, some with runways and radars and --- more recently 
--- weapons systems.

   The work is opposed by the other claimants to the atolls and the United 
States, which are wary of restrictions on ship movements in a key waterway for 
world trade which boasts rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of 
undersea oil, gas and mineral deposits. An international tribunal last year 
rejected most of China's claims to the waters and said its land reclamation was 
aggravating tensions and violating the sovereignty of fellow claimant the 
Philippines. China has ignored the ruling.

   China contends the man-made islands are primarily for civilian purposes and 
to increase safety for ships. It has said it won't interfere with freedom of 
navigation or overflight, but there have been questions about whether that 
includes military ships and aircraft.

   A bipartisan group of U.S. senators earlier this month urged Trump to resume 
freedom of navigation operations that had last been conducted in October. The 
senators described the South China Sea as critical to U.S. national security 
interests and to peace in the Asia-Pacific.

   U.S. Defense Department spokesman Maj. Jamie Davis said in an emailed 
statement that U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region would continue to conduct 
freedom of navigation operations to "challenge excessive maritime claims in 
order to preserve the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace 
guaranteed to all nations under international law."

   Davis gave no details of Thursday's operation, saying summaries would only 
be released in an annual report and adding that U.S. forces conducted such 
operations last year to challenge claims by 22 coastal states, including allies 
and partners.

   "U.S. forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including 
in the South China Sea. All operations are conducted in accordance with 
international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and 
operate wherever international law allows," Davis said.

   "FONOPS are not about any one country, nor are they about making political 
statements."


(KA)

 
 
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