In the latest challenge to Beijing’s broad territorial claims in the region, an American warship sailed through waters off the contested Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea on Thursday, December 22.
The USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands,” according to the US Seventh Fleet.
“This freedom of navigation operation… upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan,” it added.
Although Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam all claim sections of the West Philippine Sea, China claims practically all of it, including the Spratly Islands.
Oil and gas resources are thought to exist in the area.
Beijing has moved actively to turn reefs into artificial islands capable of housing military jets, further enraging those countries and the US.
The decision comes as tensions between the US and China over the coronavirus outbreak have risen, with Washington accusing Beijing of concealing and downplaying the original outbreak discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Since US President Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, relations between the two countries have been strained on various levels. Trump’s trade war, as well as his approval of a $1.3 billion military sale to Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, have enraged Beijing.