The United States has vowed to continue sailing more naval warships near disputed islands in the South China Sea, risking escalating tension with China, which has claimed a vast territory in the area.
“We will do it again. We sail in international waters at a time and place of our choosing,” a US official said in an interview with the AFP news agency on Tuesday.
The USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 22km of at least one of the man-made land formations claimed by China on Tuesday.
The patrol came within the internationally accepted limit of a nation’s territorial claim, according to the US.
The US and other Southeast Asian countries, with competing claims to the area, say these are international waters open to anybody.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 22km (12 nautical miles) limit cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.
The US official, who spoke to AFP on the condition of anonymity, said the “freedom-of-navigation” patrols were expected to become more frequent.
The move prompted Beijing to summon the American ambassador and denounce what it called “coercive actions that seeks to militarise” the disputed waters.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui told US Ambassador Max Baucus, that the patrol was “extremely irresponsible”.
Earlier, Beijing sent a guided-missile destroyer and a naval patrol ship to shadow and give warnings to the US warship “according to law”, China’s defence ministry said.
Beijing said that the warship illegally entered Chinese territory and threatened its “sovereignty”.
Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Washington should “correct the mistake immediately” to avoid “further harm” to Chinese-US relations.
In Washington, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter confirmed that the warship passed within 22km of a Chinese artificial island.
US state department spokesman John Kirby told a regular briefing that setting the dispute aside, “the US-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”.
Philippines, which has filed an arbitration case with the United Nations questioning China’s sweeping claims over the sea, led US allies in the region in hailing the warship’s passage through the disputed waters.
“I think everybody would welcome a balance of power anywhere in the world,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino said.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Beijing, said there is also a widespread regional support among China’s neighbours for American action.
China has been on a reclamation and construction spree in the disputed South China Sea despite objections by other claimants, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, a key shipping lane, with overlapping claims to the sea’s potentially rich mineral resources.
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.
Washington worries that China has built up its outposts with the aim of extending its military reach in the region. (Source: Al Jazeera and agencies)