August 10, 2017 / 8:57 AM / 7 days ago

U.S. destroyer challenges China's claims in South China Sea

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FILE PHOTO - The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain approaches the aircraft carrier USS George Washington for a fueling at sea in this December 5, 2010 handout photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Cheng S. Yang/Handout

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a "freedom of navigation operation" on Thursday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The operation came as President Donald Trump's administration seeks Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea's missile and nuclear programs and could complicate efforts to secure a common stance.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS John S. McCain traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals. China has territorial disputes with its neighbors over the area.

It was the third "freedom of navigation operation" during Trump's presidency.

Thursday's operation, first reported by Reuters, was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, and comes as Trump is seeking China's cooperation to rein in North Korea.

China's Defense Ministry said two Chinese warships "jumped into action" and warned the U.S. ship to leave, labeling the move a "provocation" that seriously harms mutual trust.

"China is resolutely opposed to this kind of show of force and pushing of regional militarization by the U.S. that may easily cause an unexpected incident at sea or in the air," it said in a statement.

China's foreign ministry said the operation had violated international and Chinese law and seriously harmed Beijing's sovereignty and security.

"China is very displeased with this and will bring up the issue with the U.S. side," the ministry said in a statement.

The United States has criticized China's construction of islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.

Twelve nautical miles marks the territorial limits recognized internationally. Sailing within those 12 miles is meant to show that the United States does not recognize territorial claims there.

The United States has said that it would like to see more international participation in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

The U.S. military has a long-standing position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.

The Trump administration has vowed to conduct more robust South China Sea operations.

In July, a U.S. warship sailed near a disputed island in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam.

Experts and officials have criticized former President Barack Obama for potentially reinforcing China's claims by sticking to innocent passage, in which a warship effectively recognized a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.

China's claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The Pentagon declined to provide any details but said that all operations are conducted in accordance with international law.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen recently after North Korea carried out two nuclear tests last year and two ICBM tests last month, prompting a strong round of U.N. sanctions. That angered Pyongyang which has threatened to teach the United States a "severe lesson".

Trump responded by warning North Korea it would face "fire and fury" if it further threatened the United States.

For a graphic on turf war on the South China sea, click: here

Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Lee Chyen Yee in Singapore; Editing by Alistair Bell and Richard Pullin

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