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US warship sails near disputed island in South China Sea

The USS Stethem arrives at the Joint Civil-Military Complex on South Korea's Jeju Island. Photo: U.S. Navy

An American guided-missile destroyer sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea on Sunday, a US defense official said, marking the second such operation since US President Donald Trump took office.

The Japan-based USS Stethem, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, came within 12 miles of Triton Island, a small landmass in the Paracel Islands chain, sailing into what China claims to be its territorial waters. Fox News first reported on the incident, known as a freedom-of-navigation operation, or FONOP.

The 12-mile line is the internationally recognized distance that separates the shores of a sovereign nation from international waters. The US has routinely conducted voyages within this 12-mile limit around islands in the South China Sea as a message to countries such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Many of these nations have laid claim to islands in the South China Sea, some of which are no more than tiny strips of sand and reef.

Sunday's the operation came just hours before a previously scheduled phone call between US President Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. It also came days after the Trump administration made a number of moves that appeared to irk Beijing, including sanctions against Chinese entities doing business with North Korea and the approval of a new arms sale to Taiwan.

A statement from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the US had "trespassed" and that China sent "military vessels and fighter planes in response to warn off the US vessel."

China called the action "a serious political and military provocation." The US "stirs up trouble" and runs "in the opposite direction from countries in the region who aspire for stability, cooperation and development," the ministry statement said.

Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, a spokesman for the US Pacific Fleet, would not confirm Sunday's operation but said in a statement to Fox News, "We conduct routine and regular FONOPs, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future."

On Wednesday, top US commander in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, told an audience in Australia that "Fake islands should not be believed by real people," in reference to China's land reclamation activities.

"I believe the Chinese are building up combat power and positional advantage in an attempt to assert de facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features and spaces in the South China," Harris added.

"Beijing has undertaken substantial upgrades of its military infrastructure in the Paracels," according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

The initiative also says China has recently expanded its facilities on Triton Island to include the construction of a helipad.

Last week, a report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said that China is continuing to build up infrastructure on three islands in the Spratly chain, Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs. The group posted satellite pictures to support its report.

China is sending messages of its own.

As Beijing marked the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from British rule this weekend, Chinese President Xi presided over the largest military parade ever held in the territory. Standing in the back of a jeep, Xi was driven past more than 3,000 assembled troops in formation in a show of strength. 

On Wednesday, China launched the first of its newest class of destroyer called the Type 055, which many analysts say resembles the size and capability of the US Navy's Arleigh-Burke class of guided-missile destroyers, like the one which conducted the operation near the contested Chinese island this weekend.

According to the Center for a New American Security, China has 183 cruisers, destroyers, coastal ships and submarines compared with 188 for the US Navy. CNAS projected in a March report that China will surpass the US Navy in these types of warships by the end of the next decade, one of the reasons the US Navy has requested a buildup to a 350-ship fleet, a view shared by many in Congress. 

China claims most of the South China Sea where more than $5 trillion of commerce passes through each year.

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