The US Navy on Wednesday sailed a destroyer close to China-controlled islands in the South China Sea in what Washington said was a patrol aimed at asserting freedom of navigation through the strategic seaway.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold sailed past the Paracel Islands and continued thereafter with operations in the South China Sea, The Associated Press said.
The operation “upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea,” the 7th Fleet said in a news release.
Such operations are considered key to the US Navy maintaining its presence in the Indo-Pacific, where China has grown its presence through a massive ship building campaign.
Beijing has also alarmed the US, Australia and New Zealand with the signing of a mutual defense agreement with the Solomon Islands, under which it could receive Chinese troops in emergencies and possibly establish a permanent Chinese military presence.
In response to the Benfold's passage, China's Southern Theater Command tracked the vessel's movements and ordered it to leave the area, Air Force Col. Tian Junli was quoted as saying on the Defense Ministry's website.
“Our troops in the military area are on high alert at all times to safeguard national sovereignty, security and peace and stability in the South China Sea," the ministry said.
China claims ownership over virtually the entire strategic waterway, through which passes around $5 trillion in global trade each year and which holds highly valuable fish stocks and undersea mineral resources. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also lay competing claims to the region.