US Navy destroyer passes disputed China islands

media captionThe BBC's Celia Hatton reports: ''This is a political issue and an economic one''

A US Navy ship has sailed close to artificial islands built by China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, US defence officials have said.

Guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen breached the 12-nautical mile zone China claims around Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly archipelago.

The freedom of navigation operation represents a serious challenge to China's territorial claims.

The foreign ministry in Beijing condemned it as "illegal".

In a statement, ministry spokesman Lu Kang described the operation as a "threat to China's sovereignty", adding that Beijing would "resolutely respond to any country's deliberately provocative actions".

US Defence Department spokesman Commander Bill Urban said earlier that "the United States is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law".


China claims most of the South and East China seas. Other countries in South East Asia have competing claims for the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal, which are thought to have resource-rich waters around them.

The reefs, which were submerged, were turned into islands by China by a massive dredging project which began in late 2013.

China says this work is legal and in a meeting with US President Barack Obama last month in Washington, President Xi Jinping said China had "no intention to militarise" the islands.

But Washington believes Beijing is constructing military facilities, designed to reinforce its disputed claim to most of the region - a major shipping zone.

What is Freedom of Navigation?

image copyrightAP

The US Freedom of Navigation programme challenges what it deems to be "excessive claims" to the world's oceans and airspace.

It was developed to promote international adherence to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, even though the US has not formally ratified the treaty.

In 2013 and 2014, the US conducted Freedom of Navigation operations of different kinds against China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam - each of whom occupies territory in the South China Sea.

International maritime law allows countries to claim ownership of the 12-nautical mile area surrounding natural islands but does not allow nations to claim ownership of submerged features that have been raised by human intervention.

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter had previously signalled plans for the sail-by, saying the US would "fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows".

A senior US defence official told Reuters news agency the warship began its mission early on Tuesday local time near the reefs and would spend several hours there.

The USS Lassen was expected to be accompanied by a US Navy P-8A surveillance plane and a P-3 surveillance plane, according to the unnamed official, speaking to US media.

Additional patrols could follow in the coming weeks, the official added.

USS Lassen

image copyrightUS Navy
  • The ship is an Arleigh Burke class missile destroyer, which the US Navy says is among the most powerful destroyers ever built.
  • It is 155m (509ft) long with a displacement of 9,145 tons (8,300 tonnes) when fully loaded.
  • Crewed by a staff of about 330.
  • It carries two Seahawk helicopters and uses the Aegis defence system.
  • Weapons include Tomahawk missiles, RUM-139 Asroc anti-submarine missiles and surface-to-air missiles.

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