US warships sail near Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands in South China Sea

Illustration: US Navy photo of guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam off Guam in March 2018

A US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and a Ticonderoga-class cruiser sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China in a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) on May 27.

USS Higgins (DDG-76) and USS Antietam (CG-54) sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China. Referred to as Xisha Islands in Chinese, the islands are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

Destroyer USS Higgins joined the FONOP after launching 23 Tomahawk missiles in the US and ally strike on Syrian chemical facilities in April this year.

Freedom of navigation operations are regularly conducted by the US Navy. The operation on Sunday was the sixth known FONOP carried out since US president Donald Trump took office. However, this is likely the first time the US Navy has sent two warships to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea.

The operation on Sunday comes shortly after Pentagon announced its decision to disinvite the Chinese Navy from its flagship international naval exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) off Hawaii this summer.

According to the official Chinese People’s Liberation Army(PLA) news website, Chinese military deployed warships and aircraft to identify and verify the US warships and to warn them off.

China’s defense ministry said the US action near Xisha Islands was a “serious infringement on China’s sovereignty”.

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