US warship sails near disputed island in South China Sea

WASHINGTON, July 3 (Reuters) - A U.S. warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam on Sunday in an operation meant to challenge the competing claims of all three nations, a U.S. Defense Department official said.

The USS Stethem, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, part of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, the official said.

The operation was first reported by Fox News on Sunday.

It was the second "freedom-of-navigation operation," or "fonop," conducted during the presidency of Donald Trump, following a drill in late May in which a U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea.

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USS Fitzgerald -- US Navy destroyer
AT SEA - SEPTEMBER 8: (FILE PHOTO) In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) is on patrol on Sept. 8, 2014, in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility in support of security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman David Flewellyn/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
AT SEA - JUNE 1: (FILE PHOTO) In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) is underway with the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group, on June 1, 2017 in the western Pacific region. Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and U.S. Navy forces routinely train together to improve interoperability and readiness to provide stability and security for the Indo-Asia Pacific region. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelsey L. Adams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
AT SEA - AUGUST 20: (FILE PHOTO) In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) is underway on August 20, 2013 in the Pacific Ocean. Fitzgerald is on patrol with the George Washington Carrier Strike Group in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul Kelly/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
AT SEA - MARCH 7: (FILE PHOTO) In this handout photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) launches a missile from the aft missile deck during Multisail 17 on March 7, 2017 in the Philippine Sea. The bilateral training exercise is designed to improve interoperability between the U.S. and Japanese forces. This exercise benefits from realistic, shared training enhancing our ability to work together to confront any contingency. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class William McCann/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
US destroyer USS Fitzgerald arrives at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City, north of Manila on June 27, 2013, to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises close to a flashpoint area of the South China Sea. The six-day exercises involving three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, are an annual event but this year they will be held off the west coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, close to Scarborough Shoal which China insists it owns. AFP PHOTO / David Bayarong (Photo credit should read david bayarong/AFP/Getty Images)
US destroyer USS Fitzgerald arrives at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City, north of Manila on June 27, 2013, to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises close to a flashpoint area of the South China Sea. The six-day exercises involving three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, are an annual event but this year they will be held off the west coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, close to Scarborough Shoal which China insists it owns. AFP PHOTO / David Bayarong (Photo credit should read david bayarong/AFP/Getty Images)
US destroyer USS Fitzgerald arrives at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City, north of Manila on June 27, 2013, to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises close to a flashpoint area of the South China Sea. The six-day exercises involving three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, are an annual event but this year they will be held off the west coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, close to Scarborough Shoal which China insists it owns. AFP PHOTO / David Bayarong (Photo credit should read david bayarong/AFP/Getty Images)
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QINGDAO, CHINA - APRIL 19: (CHINA OUT) Chinese naval soldiers welcome the arrival of the USS Fitzgerald at Qingdao Port on April 19, 2009 in Qingdao of Shandong Province, China. China's navy is set to hold a huge maritime ceremony to mark its 60 years of the Chinese navy and has invited ships and top officials from dozens of countries to attend. (Photo by Zhang Lei/VCG via Getty Images)
QINGDAO, CHINA - APRIL 19: (CHINA OUT) The USS Fitzgerald docks at Qingdao Port on April 19, 2009 in Qingdao of Shandong Province, China. China's navy is set to hold a huge maritime ceremony to mark its 60 years of the Chinese navy and has invited ships and top officials from dozens of countries to attend. (Photo by Zhang Lei/VCG via Getty Images)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) leaves the USS Fitzgerald, a US Navy destroyer, docked at the Manila bay, after signing a declaration marking the 60 years since the United States signed a security treaty with the Philippines on November 16, 2011. Clinton vowed military support for the Philippines, delivering a firm message from the deck of an American warship at a time of rising tensions with China. AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
US destroyer USS Fitzgerald arrives at the former US naval base in Subic Bay, Olongapo City, north of Manila on June 27, 2013, to join the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises close to a flashpoint area of the South China Sea. The six-day exercises involving three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, are an annual event but this year they will be held off the west coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, close to Scarborough Shoal which China insists it owns. AFP PHOTO / David Bayarong (Photo credit should read david bayarong/AFP/Getty Images)
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China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement the U.S. ship had made an unauthorized entry into China's territorial waters.

The operation was a "serious political and military provocation," said the statement, issued late on Sunday, citing ministry spokesman Lu Kang. It said China had sent battle ships and fighter jets to warn off the Stethem.

"China strongly urges the U.S. side to immediately stop this kind of provocative action which seriously violates China's sovereignty and puts at risk China's security," Lu said. China would take all necessary measures to defend itself, he said.

China's Defence Ministry said in a social media post on Monday the U.S. action had seriously damaged peace and stability in the South China Sea and reiterated its resolute opposition to the warship's entry.

"The U.S. conduct seriously damages strategic trust between the two sides and seriously damages the political atmosphere of the development of China-U.S. military relations," the ministry said, without elaborating.

'POLITICAL GAMES'

Chinese state-run tabloid the Global Times said in an editorial on Monday the United States was playing political games in the South China Sea and such patrols would not stop Chinese construction work there.

"U.S. provocations cannot change the present situation in the South China Sea," it said.

Twelve nautical miles marks the territorial limits recognized internationally. Sailing within those 12 miles is meant to show that the United States does not recognize territorial claims there.

"Unlike in the Spratlys, where China has created new artificial territory in the last several years, it has effectively controlled the Paracels since 1974," said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a South China Sea expert at the Center for a New American Security. "It claims illegal straight baselines around the Paracels, and the fonop may have been contesting these."

The Paracels are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. China fully occupied the Paracels in 1974 after forcing the navy of the-then South Vietnam off its holdings.

Trump has heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping, but his administration has also stepped up pressure on Beijing as he has become frustrated that China has not done more to pressure North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.

On Thursday, the administration imposed sanctions on two Chinese citizens and a shipping company for helping North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, and accused a Chinese bank of laundering money for Pyongyang.

The Trump administration has also approved an arms package for Taiwan worth about $1.4 billion, the State Department said last week. China deems Taiwan its own and has never renounced the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control.

Trump spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday, ahead of meetings he will hold with both leaders on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, next Friday and Saturday.

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