Angry China shadows U.S. warship near man-made islands

U.S. Defies China's Territorial Claims in South China Sea

A U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed close to one of China's man-made islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing, which said it had tracked and warned the ship and called in the U.S. ambassador to protest.

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The USS Lassen's patrol was the most significant U.S. challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits China claims around artificial islands it has built up in the Spratly archipelago as Beijing exercises its growing maritime power.

Washington's move followed months of deliberation by the administration of President Barack Obama and could ratchet up tension in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and increase strains in U.S.-China relations.

A U.S. defense official said the Lassen also went within 12-mile limits of features in the disputed sea claimed by Vietnam and U.S. treaty ally, the Philippines. They said such "freedom-of-navigation" patrols were expected to become more frequent.

The U.S. destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, an artificial island built up by China in the past year.

See photos of the disputed waters:

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Disputes over islands in the South China Sea
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Angry China shadows U.S. warship near man-made islands
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
FIERY CROSS REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 3, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the nearly completed construction within the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - MARCH 17, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression #2 of 3. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - AUGUST 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Close up image 2 of 2. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe high-resolution imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Image progression. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
SUBI REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - AUGUST 1, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery of the Subi Reef in the South China Sea, a part of the Spratly Islands group. Close up image 1 of 2. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.
Philippine and US Marines aboard riverine patrol boats take position during a beach landing as part of their annual joint naval exercises at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine and US Marines board riverine patrol boats during a beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines maneuver during a live fire exercise as part of the US-Philippines annual joint naval exercises facing the South China Sea at a naval training center in San Marcelino, north of Manila on October 9, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Philippine Navy's World War II-vintage warship BRP Rajah Humabon is anchored during the navy's founding anniversary celebration at a naval station in Cavite city, west of Manila on May 25, 2015 with buildings along Roxas boulevard in Manila in the background. The Philippine navy is one of the weakest in the region relying mostly on decades-old, surplus US warships, but the Philippine government has been modernising the navy and other branches of the armed forces in the face of China's increasing aggressiveness in trying to claim most of the South China sea. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines take position next to a US Marine assault amphibious vehicles (AAV) during a live-fire exercise as part of the US-Philippines annual joint naval exercises facing the South China Sea at a naval training center in San Marcelino, north of Manila on October 9, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine Marines simulate a beach landing exercise as part of their annual joint naval exercises with the US at a marine base in Ternate, Cavite province, west of Manila on October 8, 2015. The Philippines in late August asked the US to provide military 'assistance' in resupplying and rotating Manila's forces in the South China Sea because they face harassment from regional power China, a military spokesman said . AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Filipino environmental activists display placards during a rally outside China's consular office in Manila on May 11, 2015, against China's reclamation and construction activities on islands and reefs in the Spratly Group of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines. The group is accusing China of destroying the fragile ecosystem and livelihood of fishermen during their reclamation project. AFP PHOTO / Jay DIRECTO (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)
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A Chinese guided-missile destroyer and a naval patrol ship shadowed and gave warnings to the U.S. warship "according to law", China's Defense Ministry said.

The U.S. patrol was a "coercive action that seeks to militarize the South China Sea region" and an "abuse" of freedom of navigation under international law, it added.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, testifying on Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, initially would only say the U.S. Navy had conducted operations in the South China Sea. But under questioning from lawmakers, he said the USS Lassen had passed within 12 miles of a Chinese artificial island.

China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus, telling him that the patrol was "extremely irresponsible," the Foreign Ministry said. It earlier said the USS Lassen "illegally" entered waters near islands and reefs in the Spratlys without the Chinese government's permission.

"China will resolutely respond to any country's deliberate provocations," the ministry said in a statement that gave no details on precisely where the U.S. ship sailed.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily briefing that if the United States continued to "create tensions in the region," China might conclude it had to "increase and strengthen the building up of our relevant abilities".

Lu did not elaborate, except to say he hoped it did not come to that, but his comments suggested China could further boost its military presence in the South China Sea.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told a regular briefing that "Setting this aside, the U.S.-China relationship is vitally important and one we want to see continue to improve and to grow for the benefit of both our countries, not to mention the region."

SAFE DISTANCE

The U.S. defense official said the Lassen was followed at a safe distance by a Chinese ship and no incidents were reported during the 72-mile passage.

"I would expect that this becomes a regular operation in the South China Sea," the official said. "This type of operation shouldn't be seen as provocative."

The official said the Lassen had been followed for weeks by Chinese vessels before the patrol.

Subi and nearby Mischief Reef were submerged at high tide before China began a dredging project to turn them into islands in 2014.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12-nautical mile limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.

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Pentagon officials say the United States regularly conducts freedom-of-navigation operations around the world to challenge excessive maritime claims. The U.S. Navy last went within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed territory in the Spratlys in 2012.

China traveled within 12 nautical miles of the U.S.

controlled Aleutian Island about six weeks ago, the defense official said.

The White House says Washington has made clear to Beijing, even during last month's visit by President Xi Jinping, that the United States would fly or sail anywhere that international law allows and stressed the importance of the South China Sea for commerce.

Asked on Tuesday about the patrol, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said he could not discuss details about military operations, but added: "Our freedom of navigation operations do not assert any specific U.S. rights."

The patrol was carried out just weeks before a series of Asia-Pacific summits that Presidents Obama and Xi were expected to attend.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

The Philippines, a vocal critic of China's activities in the South China Sea, welcomed the U.S. action.

CHINA'S AMBITIONS

A range of security experts have said Washington's freedom-of-navigation patrols would have to be regular to be effective, given Chinese ambitions to project power deep into maritime Southeast Asia and beyond.

"By using a guided-missile destroyer, rather than smaller vessels ... they are sending a strong message," said Ian Storey, of Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies. "They have also said, significantly, that there will be more patrols – so it really now is up to China how it will respond."

Some experts have said China would likely resist attempts to make such U.S. actions routine. China's navy could for example try to block or attempt to surround U.S. vessels, risking an escalation.

Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University, said he expected Beijing to limit its response as it ultimately did not want confrontation. "Both sides will be quite verbal but real actions, I hope, will show signs of exercising restraint," Zhu said.

Washington worries that China has built up its outposts with the aim of extending its military reach in the South China Sea. China says they will have mainly civilian uses and undefined defense purposes.

Xi surprised U.S. officials after a meeting with Obama in Washington last month by saying that China had "no intention to militarize" the islands.

Even before that, however, satellite photographs had shown the construction of three military-length airstrips by China in the Spratlys, including one each on Subi and Mischief reefs.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Yeganeh Torbati and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in Beijing; Additional reporting by Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Grego Torode in Hong Kong and Lincoln Feast in Sydney; Writing by Dean Yates and Alex Richardson; Editing by Robert Birsel, Ian Geoghegan and Grant McCool)

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