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[New York Times] U.S. Challenges China’s Claim of Islands With Maritime Operation

By JANE PERLEZJAN. 30, 2016

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BEIJING — China on Saturday accused the United States Navy of violating its laws by sending a warship within the 12-mile territorial zone of an island it claims in the South China Sea after the Pentagon said a Navy vessel had conducted a freedom of navigation operation.

The United States vessel, the missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur, entered the waters off Triton Island in the Paracel Islands chain on Saturday without giving China notice in an exercise intended to challenge “excessive maritime claims” by China and two other countries, said Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman. Vietnam and Taiwan also claim Triton Island, though the Navy operation appeared to be aimed at China.

The goal of the operation was to send a message to China, Taiwan and Vietnam that their attempts to restrict navigational rights by requiring other countries to obtain permission before entering the waters around the island were “inconsistent” with international law, Mr. Wright said.

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In a statement on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, a ministry spokeswoman, said, “The U.S. warship’s arbitrary entrance of China’s territorial water has violated the relevant Chinese law, and the Chinese side has taken relevant measures in accordance with the law including monitoring and warning.
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“We urge the U.S. side to respect and abide by the relevant Chinese law, and do more things that may contribute to the mutual trust between China and the U.S., as well as regional peace,” the statement added.

Ms. Hua did not elaborate on what kind of warnings the Chinese had made to the American warship, or if Chinese vessels followed the Curtis Wilbur as it sailed inside the 12-mile zone around the island, which China claims as its territory.

In a harsher reaction, the Chinese Defense Ministry said a garrison on the island, as well as navy ships and planes, had “immediately” identified the American warship and warned it to leave.

The statement said the American operation was a “severe” violation of law which undermined the “peace, security as well as the good order in the relevant waters.” It called the operation “highly unprofessional and irresponsible for the safety of soldiers for both sides.”

The operation by the Curtis Wilbur was the second such operation since October when the destroyer Lassen sailed within 12 miles of Subi Reef, one of seven artificial islands built by China in another archipelago in the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands, not far from the Philippines.

The Obama administration has warned Beijing that it would challenge China’s claim that much of the South China Sea is its sovereign territory. The freedom of navigation operations are intended to show that American vessels can sail in international waters at any time they desire.

During an appearance in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., said the Navy would conduct more freedom of navigation operations, but he gave no notice that the patrol by the Curtis Wilbur would come so soon.

The United States has taken particular exception to China’s enlargement of tiny atolls and reefs into larger islands equipped with military-size runways and the capacity to park fighter jets and berth naval ships.

In the past 18 months, China had reclaimed more than 3,000 acres to build the artificial islands compared with 215 acres of land reclaimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan in the past 40 years, Admiral Harris said during his talk at the center.

Triton Island, known by the Chinese as Zhongjian Island, is close to the area in the South China Sea where the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, a major energy company, moved an oil rig in 2014, resulting in a standoff between vessels of Vietnam and China, and a sharp deterioration in relations between the countries.

Correction: January 30, 2016
An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. as the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet. He is the commander of the United States Pacific Command.

Follow Jane Perlez on Twitter @JanePerlez.

Emmarie Huetteman contributed reporting from Washington.

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