The Chinese government issued an angry response after a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer drew within a dozen miles of several artificial islands in the South China Sea that China and other nations claim as sovereign territory.
China's defense ministry said its own warships followed and issued warnings to the USS Lassen on Tuesday, according to Reuters, as it moved through the waters around the Spratly Islands.
"A Chinese guided-missile destroyer and a naval patrol ship shadowed and gave warnings to the U.S. warship 'according to law', China's Defense Ministry said in statements on its website, adding that the military would take all necessary steps to protect the country's security.
"The U.S. patrol was a "coercive action that seeks to militarize the South China Sea region" and an "abuse" of freedom of navigation under international law, it added."
China summoned the U.S. ambassador following the maneuver. The New York Times says that "Max Baucus was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday evening and told that the United States should stop 'threatening Chinese sovereignty and security interests,' the national broadcaster CCTV said."
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter doubled down on the administration's characterization of the sail-by as exercising the right to freely navigate international waters.
"We have said, and we are acting on the basis of saying, that we will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits," Carter said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Reuters, citing an unnamed U.S. defense official, said the mission "lasted a few hours" and that it "would be the first in a series" of freedom of navigation activities aimed at testing the limits of China's claims on the territory.
Reporting from Beijing, NPR's Anthony Kuhn tells our Newscast unit that the U.S. hasn't conducted freedom of navigation operations in about three years. He adds:
"Since the U.S. announced its intention to sail warships near islands claimed by China, Chinese state media have carried comments by hawks in the military, saying that China would or should respond with force and drive the U.S. ships out of the area. But the two countries' leaders say they're committed to avoiding confrontation."
USA Today reports that China's Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the USS Lassen's actions illegal and a threat to U.S.-China relations.
" 'The actions of the U.S. warship have threatened China's sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability,' the ministry said on its website. 'The Chinese side expresses its strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition.' "
As the Two Way has reported, China has created islands by dredging sand and piling it on top of partly submerged coral reefs: "The idea is for China to stake an even bigger claim to hotly contested territory in the South China Sea, which is an area also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam."
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