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US, China Engage in New South China Sea Face-off

Fiery Cross Reef, in the South China Sea

The U.S. and China engaged in a new face-off Tuesday in the South China Sea, with an American warship sailing near disputed artificial islands claimed by Beijing, and China scrambling fighter jets to warn off the U.S. vessel.

The U.S. Defense Department said it sent a guided missile destroyer, the USS William Lawrence, to within 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) of Fiery Cross Reef, a land feature in the South China Sea.

In response, China said it dispatched two fighter jets and three vessels to monitor the U.S. ship's passage and warned it to leave the waters near the reef.

Fiery Cross is composed of about 280 hectares (690 acres) of mostly dredged material from the ocean floor, to which China and other nations lay claim. Beijing in the last several years has built a 3,000-meter runway there, opened a port and erected other military facilities.

FILE - The USS William P. Lawrence guided missile destroyer, below, awaits refueling from a tanker, above, off Coronado, Calif., Jan. 20, 2016.
FILE - The USS William P. Lawrence guided missile destroyer, below, awaits refueling from a tanker, above, off Coronado, Calif., Jan. 20, 2016.

In less than a year, the U.S. has conducted three so-called freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea to contest what it believes to be excessive claims to the territory by nearby countries.

The Lawrence operation was meant to "challenge excessive maritime claims of some claimants in the South China Sea," Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban said in an emailed statement. "These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise."

State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau stressed later that the operation challenged attempts by China, Taiwan and Vietnam to restrict navigational rights around the feature they claim. The operation is not singling out China, she said.

The Chinese foreign and defense ministries described the U.S. ship's maneuver as provocative and said the American operation was justification for Beijing's construction of military facilities on the island.

Although the United States is not a claimant to the sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, senior officials have been saying it is vital to U.S. interests that various claimants pursue their claims peacefully and in accordance with international laws.

About $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year through the South China Sea, the majority of which China claims. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have claims to parts of the sea.

VOA's Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.

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