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USS Dewey challenges China’s claims with first operation under Trump

The guided-missile destroyers USS Dewey (DDG 105), front, and USS Pinckney (DDG 91) transit together during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Brunei 2011. CARAT is a series of bilateral exercises held annually in Southeast Asia to strengthen relationships and enhance force readiness. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Keim/Released)

SOUTH CHINA SEA — A US Navy destroyer has sailed close to a disputed South China Sea island controlled by China for the first time under US President Donald Trump.

The USS Dewey sailed within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of Mischief Reef, in the Spratly Island chain, on Wednesday, in a “freedom of navigation operation,” according to a US official.

While he didn’t confirm details of this particular operation, Pentagon Spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis told CNN, “We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea.”

“We operate in accordance with international law. We fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” he added.

A crucial shipping route, China claims ownership of the vast majority of the South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly island chains, a claim disputed by numerous other countries including the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Chinese government has reclaimed land and built up artificial islands in the sea, including on Mischief Reef, and deployed military assets to them.

Chinese officials have previously described the US’s freedom of navigation operations as a serious breach of law and an intentional provocation. The Pentagon said such operations were “not about any one country, or any one body of water.”

The US regularly undertook freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea under former US President Barack Obama, but there had been suggestions the Trump administration was putting them off to avoid antagonizing China.

Earlier operations request denied

Earlier in the year, the US military had requested permission to perform a freedom of navigation operation but it was turned down by the Pentagon, as part of an effort to ease US China relations, a US defense official told CNN.

Capt. Davis had told CNN in early May that all future freedom of navigation operations would not be widely advertised as they had been under the Obama Administration. Instead, they would only be released publicly in an annual report.

The US has traditionally taken no position on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea but has repeatedly asserted its right to freedom of navigation in the disputed waters, with the US military flying and sailing its assets close to the islands China controls.

China says both the Paracels and the Spratlys are an “integral part” of its territory, offering up maps that date back to the early 20th century.

The US Navy’s new actions in the South China Sea took place as Chinese President Xi Jinping praised his country’s navy at the 12th Party congress of the People’s Liberation Army, according to state media.

In his speech to the meeting, Xi commended the navy’s work and said he wanted to build them into a strong and modern force.

The Chinese navy launched their first homegrown aircraft carrier in April, the second in their fleet, as part of their efforts to build a “blue-water navy” able to operate anywhere in the world.

Does China have upper hand?

China has appeared in recent months to be gaining the upper hand in the long-running South China Sea dispute.

On Friday May 19, China and the Philippines held their first direct talks over the region, a move analysts said strengthened the Beijing’s position.

Under Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power in June 2016, there has been a greater focus on co-operating with China rather than confronting them over their claims.

“The Philippines under Duterte decided that we had to address the overdependence on one major power, whose capital is thousands of miles away and to pay attention to our neighborhood, particularly, to the biggest neighbor we have — that is China,” Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Santa Romana told CNN last week.

The incoming US administration initially took a more muscular approach toward the South China Sea, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson comparing China’s island building to Russia’s taking of Crimea at his confirmation hearing. However, the White House later appeared to ease up on Beijing as it sought China’s help in reining in North Korea.