Beijing on Saturday said it had dispatched a warship to drive away a US missile destroyer which had “violated” its sovereignty by sailing close to a shoal in the disputed South China Sea.
The USS Hopper sailed within 12 nautical miles of Huangyan Island on the night of January 17 without alerting Beijing, the foreign ministry said, referring to the shoal by its Chinese name.
Also known as Scarborough Shoal, the ring of reefs lies about 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the Philippines in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s claims are hotly contested by other nations.
The US vessel “violated China’s sovereignty and security interests”, and put the safety of nearby Chinese vessels “under grave threat”, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
China’s defence ministry said in a separate statement that a Chinese frigate “immediately took actions to identify and verify the US ship and drove it away by warning” it.
The USS Hopper recently entered the US Navy’s 7th Fleet area of operations, where the ship is on an “independent deployment”, according to a statement released earlier this month on the Navy’s website.
Its mission in Asia involves “security cooperation, building partner capacity, and performing routine operations within the area”.
News of the encounter follows Friday’s release of a new US national defence strategy that says America is facing “growing threats” from China and Russia.
China is a “strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea”, the document says.
China’s defence ministry dismissed those claims on Saturday, saying “the situation in the South China Sea has steadily stabilised,” in comments attributed to spokesman Wu Qian.
But it added, “the United States has repeatedly sent warships illegally into the adjacent waters of the South China Sea islands and reefs.”
Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea despite rival claims from Southeast Asian neighbours and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
China seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a brief stand-off with the Philippine navy. The shoal is also claimed by Taiwan.