China on Thursday voiced strong protest against a US Navy warship passing close to the Meiji Reef in the South China Sea. The operation came as President Donald Trump's administration seeks Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea's missile and nuclear programmes, and could complicate efforts to secure a common stance.
"McCain" illegally entered the waters near the reef and conducted a so-called "freedom of navigation operation" on Thursday without permission of the Chinese government, Xinhua quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang as saying.
Although China opposes inclusion of the sea disputes in worldwide conferences, partly to prevent the U.S. and other Western governments from intervening, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Japan's new top diplomat, Taro Kono, expressed concern over aggressive actions in the waters.
On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was asked at a briefing whether "freedom of navigation" and other issues serve to "make for a more hard campaign on North Korea with China".
China's defence ministry said two Chinese warships "jumped into action" and warned the United States ship to leave, labelling the move a "provocation" that seriously harms mutual trust.More news: U.S. stocks close lower after President Trump's remarks to North Korea
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"U.S. forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea", spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said.
"China is very displeased with this and will bring up the issue with the United States side", the ministry said.
Twelve nautical miles marks the territorial limits recognized internationally.
Sailing within those 12 miles is meant to show the United States does not recognise territorial claims there.
"All operations are conducted in accordance with global law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever worldwide law allows", she said.
Two other US Navy ships approached China-claimed islands in the South China Sea in July and May. The operations, according to anonymous officials, were meant to challenge China's claim on trade routes now contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.