“These actions of the US warship are a threat to the sovereignty and security of China, and safety of people living on the islands; they damage peace and stability in the region. In this regard, the Chinese side expresses extreme dissatisfaction and strongly protests,” the statement posted on China’s Foreign Ministry website says, according to Interfax.
A US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AP on Monday that a US Navy ship had sailed near the artificial islands. The Navy was planning to send one of its destroyers on a patrol route that goes within 12 sea miles of the islands, previous reports stated. The US vessel could have been accompanied by one or two US Navy surveillance planes, which have repeatedly conducted reconnaissance flights in the area, an unnamed US official told Reuters. According to the US Navy, additional patrols could follow in the coming weeks.
The USS Lassen destroyer was scheduled to pass by the Subi and Mischief reefs, which belong to the Spratly archipelago, over which China claims sovereignty. Both reefs were initially submerged before China took up an ambitious dredging project aimed at turning them into islands.
Chinese authorities monitored and followed the US warship when it “illegally” entered the waters near the disputed islands, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.
The statement stresses that the passage of the American destroyer was made “despite repeated warnings” from Beijing.
“China consistently respects and defends the freedom of navigation and flight of any country in accordance with international law. However, it firmly opposes any country harming [China’s] sovereignty and security under the pretext of freedom of navigation and flight,” Beijing said.
It added: “China resolutely defends its sovereignty, security and rights in the maritime space. The Chinese side is ready to give an appropriate response to any country’s provocations.”
The Foreign Ministry noted that China hopes the US “react properly to this stance, will immediately correct the committed mistakes, and won’t resort to provocative actions that threaten the sovereignty and security of China.”
The US has sent its vessels on similar patrols, which strayed near parts of the Spratly reefs previously built up by Vietnam and the Philippines, Reuters added citing the US Defense Department.
The incident comes weeks ahead of several Asia-Pacific summits scheduled for the second half of November. Both US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to attend. Under such circumstances, the patrol carries with it a risk of aggravating tensions between the two countries.
China is building several artificial islands in the disputed territory, to host radar stations, airstrips and other facilities. Critics insist they are for military purposes. Beijing argues the military aspect of its reclamation program is minimal and that the islands’ purpose is mostly civilian.
China believes the islands to be its sovereign territory, and strictly considers the 12-mile zone around the islands to be exclusively its territorial waters.