By Gerry Shih
China has strongly condemned the United States after a US warship deliberately sailed near one of the Beijing-controlled islands in the hotly contested South China Sea to exercise freedom of navigation.
The missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 22km of Triton Island in the Paracel chain "to challenge excessive maritime claims of parties that claim the Paracel Islands", without notifying the three claimants beforehand, Defence Department spokesman Mark Wright said in Washington.
The operation drew Beijing's ire. Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun issued a statement saying the "unprofessional and irresponsible" US action "severely violated Chinese law, sabotaged the peace, security and good order of the waters, and undermined the region's peace and stability."
In an opinion published by the official Xinhua news agency, China described the manoeuvre as a "deliberate provocation" that raised doubts about the United States' sincerity just days after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beijing for meetings about the South China Sea and North Korea that were called productive by both sides.
China, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the Paracels and require prior notice from ships transiting what they consider their territorial waters. The latest operation was particularly aimed at China, which has raised tensions with the US and its Southeast Asian neighbours by embarking on massive construction of man-made islands and airstrips in contested waters.
The US has claimed the attempts to restrict navigational rights by requiring prior notice are inconsistent with international law and pledged to regularly carry out similar manoeuvres.
China's official response has been restrained compared to the public outrage seen online, according to Xinhua. A social media search on Sunday showed a smattering of posts calling on China to adopt a tougher military posture against US encroachment - if not wage war with the US.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea and its islands, reefs and atolls on historic grounds. The area has some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, and US officials say ensuring freedom of navigation is in US national interests, while not taking sides in the territorial disputes.
China seized the unpopulated Triton Island, an area of 1.2 square kilometres, from former South Vietnam in 1974. In May 2014, China parked a huge oil drilling platform off the Vietnamese coast in the area, prompting Vietnam to send fishing boats and coast guard vessels to harass the rig and nearby Chinese vessels.