U.S. warship sails within 12 miles of Chinese-built island in South China Sea

A U.S. naval destroyer sailed early Tuesday within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, a U.S. defense official said, in a direct challenge to China’s territorial claims.

The USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, was accompanied by Navy surveillance planes as it approached the Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, the official said.

The mission “was completed without incident,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had said earlier that Beijing was trying to verify whether the U.S. vessel had entered the 12-mile zone.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington said that the concept of freedom of navigation should not be used as an excuse for muscle-flexing and that the United States should “refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining peace and regional stability,” Chinese state media reported.

A satellite image of what is claimed to be an under-construction airstrip in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea. (Digitalglobe/AFP/Getty Images)

Additional patrols will follow in coming weeks, and could also be conducted around features that have been built up by Vietnam and the Philippines in the Spratlys, a U.S. defense official told the Reuters news agency.

“This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s not something that’s unique to China.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday the United States is not required to consult with other nations if it decides to conduct such operations.

“The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters. You don’t need to consult with anybody. That’s the idea,” he said.