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American Warship Sails Near Disputed Islands, Challenging China

USS Decatur conducts 10-hour patrol in the South China Sea, sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-held outposts in Spratly island chain

The USS Decatur operates in the South China Sea in October 2016. PHOTO: PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS DIANA QUINLAN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

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By 

Gordon Lubold in Washington and 

Jeremy Page in Beijing

Updated Sept. 30, 2018 3:49 a.m. ET

A U.S. Navy warship patrolled near at least two Chinese-held outposts in the disputed Spratly island chain in the South China Sea on Sunday, challenging Beijing’s maritime claims amid growing tensions between the two countries.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur navigated past Gaven and Johnson reefs over the course of a 10-hour patrol in the South China Sea, sailing within 12 nautical miles of both features in what amounts to a freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP.

The two outposts are among seven where China has built heavily fortified artificial islands since 2013, raising fears among its Asian neighbors and in the U.S. that Beijing could use them to enforce its claims to almost all of the South China Sea.

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U.S. forces operating in the region navigate through international waters regularly and always abide by international law, a U.S. official said, adding that such patrols demonstrate the U.S. will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

“That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe,” the official said. “FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements,” the official said.

There was no immediate response from the Chinese government. Beijing says it has “indisputable sovereignty” over all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters.

Last week, China said the recent flight of American B-52 bombers over the South China Sea was “provocative.” The Pentagon called the flight routine.

The last time the U.S. conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea was in May, when two warships—the USS Antietam and USS Higgins—navigated through the Paracel Islands.

Such maritime patrols are typically planned weeks in advance. Still, Sunday’s patrol comes amid rising tensions with China.

This month, the State Department imposed sanctions on a Chinese military agency for buying Russian combat aircraft and a surface-to-air missile system.


That resulted in China formally complaining to U.S. ambassador Terry Branstad and the acting defense attaché, and recalling Beijing’s navy chief, Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong, during a high-level visit to the U.S., canceling a Pentagon meeting with his counterpart, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. China also denied a request from the U.S. Navy for an American warship to schedule a port visit in Hong Kong.

Tension over economic issues between the two countries have been high too. The Trump administration imposed new 10% tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods last week, which led China to declare tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods.

The patrol Sunday follows a series of patrols through those waters from American allies, including a British ship which conducted a freedom of navigation patrol in August in the Paracels, which are controlled by China but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. French navy ships navigated through the Spratly Islands in May. This month, a South Korean navy ship sailed close to disputed waters in the South China Sea, but Seoul said the ship was taking refuge during a typhoon and wasn’t challenging China’s claims.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Jeremy Page at jeremy.page@wsj.com

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