The Navy destroyer USS Stethem conducted a "right of innocent passage" exercise Sunday near a tiny but bitterly disputed island occupied by China in the South China Sea.
The Stethem sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel archipelago, also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Twelve nautical miles is a standard international boundary extending offshore from all nations.
The U.S. has no official stance on the ownership of the islands. China has been building up reefs and turning them into islands, some with military fortifications.
Innocent passage is an international concept that generally allows for a ship to pass through the territorial waters of another country. U.S. ships routinely conduct such exercises in areas where nations attempt to restrict such passage by demanding prior notice or other actions, Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, told USA TODAY.
Knight cited the Freedom of Navigation Operations program under which U.S. forces challenge what it views as "excessive maritime claims" around the world, demonstrating the U.S. commitment to uphold rights under international law.
"The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," he said, adding that the exercises "are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements."
The Paracel Islands, a group of more than 30 small islands between Vietnam and China, are known as the Xisha Islands in China and the Hoang Sa Archipelago in Vietnam.
A similar dispute is simmering over the nearby Spratly Islands, which China also has been building up and fortifying. Vietnam and the Philippines are challenging China's claim to those islands.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said last week that recent satellite imagery shows China "remains committed to developing its power projection capabilities."
"China’s three air bases in the Spratlys and another on Woody Island in the Paracels will allow Chinese military aircraft to operate over nearly the entire South China Sea," the group said.
Adm. Harry Harris, the top US military commander in the Pacific, in a speech last week in Australia accused Beijing of using "fake islands" to build up a military and strategic advantage.
"China is altering physical & political landscapes by creating & militarizing man-made bases," Harris said. "Fake islands should not be believed by real people."