In a sign that the United States isn’t going to let China’s ambition to dominate the South China Sea go unchecked, Washington sent the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur on a patrol through the disputed area this past weekend, drawing anger from Beijing but tacit understanding from Hanoi.
The Curtis Wilbur passed within 12 miles of Triton Island on Friday in what the Pentagon called a “freedom of navigation” exercise.
Triton Island is administered by China, which seized administrative control of the island from the then-government of South Vietnam in 1974 following a two-day naval engagement known as the Battle of the Paracel Islands.
Triton Island is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
“This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants—China, Taiwan and Vietnam—to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas,” Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said in a Saturday morning statement.
Vietnam on Sunday again pressed its claim to the area, using that country’s name for the Paracel Islands.
“We reaffirm the indisputable sovereignty of Viet Nam over the Hoang Sa as well as the Truong Sa archipelagos,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Hai Binh.
While Vietnam continues to lay claim to the islets, it isn’t pushing the U.S. to stay out of surrounding seas.
“Viet Nam respects the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea conducted in accordance with relevant rules of international law,” he said.
“We request all countries to make a positive and practical contribution to maintaining peace and stability in the East Sea [South China Sea] and to respect international law.”
Unlike Vietnam, China's Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun called the U.S. move a "deliberate provocation,” according to the official Xinhuanet news site.
The South China Sea is becoming an international flashpoint as China and other countries in the region seek control of trade routes and mineral deposits beneath the seabed. China has hauled massive amounts of sand and other material to build on reefs and other features and has constructed landing strips that can handle military aircraft.
The U.S. action was "a serious violation of law, it damaged the peace and security of relevant waters and good order, and it is not helpful to regional peace and stability" and the Chinese ministry "expresses resolute opposition," Yang said, according to a post on the ministry of National Defense website.
He called the U.S. moves in the South China sea “very unprofessional,” saying they are “irresponsible to the safety of servicemen of both sides.”
While the U.S. remains neutral about the sovereignty claims, the ship’s passage makes good on pledges by President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the U.S. has legitimate claims to sail freely in international waters.
“This operation demonstrated, as the president and secretary have stated, that we will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. “That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe.”
A strong rebuke
In October, the Navy sailed the USS Lassen, another guided missile destroyer, near the Spratly Islands—a different set of islands and reefs claimed by China.
That move drew a strong rebuke from China, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying the Lassen's route had threatened China's sovereignty and "damaged regional peace and stability."
In December the U.S. flew a pair of B-52 bombers over the manmade islands.
In January, Vietnam issued protests after a series of landings by Chinese civilian airliners on a runway China built on a newly created island in the area. Vietnam has also lodged protests over the movement of a Chinese oil rig into the area in 2014 and early this year.