A U.S. destroyer last week sailed by China's largest man-made island, the third freedom of navigation operation in seven months that challenges Beijing's vast claims in the South China Sea.
The USS William P. Lawrence made "innocent passage" within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of Fiery Cross Reef, the limit of what international law regards as an island's territorial sea. The reef, which used to be submerged at high tide for all but two rocks, is now an artificial island with a long airstrip, harbor and burgeoning above-ground infrastructure. It dwarfs all other features in the disputed area, was recently visited by China's second-highest military officer and became prominent in the Chinese media when a famous singer of patriotic anthems entertained troops there recently.
China's Defense Ministry said it deployed two navy fighter jets, one early warning aircraft and three ships to track and warn off the vessel.
In response, it said that it will increase the scope of sea and air patrols and "boost all categories of military capacity building."
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said during a visit to Vietnam — which also claims Fiery Cross Reef, as does the Philippines — that the U.S. considers the area as international waters.
"If the world's most powerful navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to the ships of smaller countries?" he told reporters.
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