A pair of Navy guided-missile destroyers have sailed within a dozen nautical miles of disputed islands China is believed to have militarized -- a move that has angered some in Beijing.
The Arleigh Burke destroyers Spruance and Preble on Monday conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea "to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law," said Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for U.S. 7th Fleet.
"U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea," Doss said in a statement. "All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe."
Freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, are meant to remind other countries that all nations can operate in international waters. The Navy has carried out several FONOPS in the South China Sea in recent years, where China has built artificial islands and air strips and installed other military capabilities.
A defense official confirmed some of the specifics of the ship movements on background. The official said Monday's operation focused on Mischief Reef, a location claimed by China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Satellite images indicate the reef is the site of a Chinese airstrip and possibly a naval base, according to the Singapore-based Straits Times.
The destroyers' transit on Monday took place as officials in Washington and Beijing negotiated trade talks. When asked if the Navy's move would affect the talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called it "a series of U.S. tricks," according to Reuters.
Doss said FONOPS "are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements."
"We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future," he said.
This is at least the second FONOP the Navy has conducted in the South China Sea this year. Last month, the guided-missile destroyer McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of another group of disputed islands.