On Tuesday, a US guided-missile destroyer sailed near the Chinese-claimed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The US Navy said the maneuver was meant to challenge “restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.”
The US often sails warships near disputed archipelagos in the South China Sea to challenge Beijing’s claims, maneuvers known as Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). Calling out Vietnam and Taiwan by name is a rare departure from the usual US statements on FONOPs.
“China, Vietnam, and Taiwan require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in ‘innocent passage’ through the territorial sea,” the US Navy statement said. The US statement said the restriction was against international law, as outlined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The US began challenging China’s claims in the region using FONOPs in 2015. According to the South China Sea Probing Initiative, Tuesday’s passage by the McCain marked the 9th time this year a US Navy vessel passed within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-claimed island, the most in a single year since US FONOPs started in the South China Sea.
The increase in FONOPs came along with an uptick in US naval drills. The US sent several carrier strike groups to the South China Sea throughout the year.