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Challenging China, US launches first South China Sea operation under Trump

A US Navy warship traveled near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. China has constructed hardened shelters with retractable roofs for mobile missile launchers on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross Reefs. AMTI/CSIS via DigitalGlobe

MANILA, Philippines — A US Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China's artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, challenging Beijing's claim over the region, according to US officials.

USS Dewey, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, traveled close to the artificial island China built on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

This would the US Navy's first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea since US President Donald Trump took office in January.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines territorial waters as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state's coastline.

Mischief or Panganiban Reef, also being claimed by the Philippines, is included in the ruling of an international arbitration court based in the The Hague, Netherlands. The international tribunal found that Mischief Reef is part of the Philippines' continental shelf.

In its ruling issued on July 2016, the United Nations-backed tribunal invalidated China's claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea.

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The tribunal considered Mischief Reef as a low-tide elevation, which gives no entitlement to any exclusive maritime zone under international law. It does not merit a territorial sea but does warrant a 500-meter safety zone.

Mischief Reef is also one of the three artificial islands where China had built air bases and military facilities, allowing them to launch missiles anywhere in the region.

READ: China can now deploy military assets to South China Sea

The operation comes weeks after reports that the US Pacific Command requested to carry out such operations which had been denied by the White House. Trump had been seeking Beijing's goodwill over the North Korea problem.

China had strongly protested US FONOPs in the past, claiming that it is an example of Washington militarizing the South China Sea.

Ankit Panda, political analyst and senior editor of The Diplomat, noted that Beijing's excessive claim may be strengthened should it emerge that USS Dewey complied with innocent passage requirements.

The operation may be interpreted to "tacitly cede a territorial sea entitlement."

"The difference between a high seas FONOP and an innocent passage FONOP is not an academic distinction. In the former case, a military vessel would have to specifically operate in a manner not consistent with Article 19 of UNCLOS, which delineates a range of activities that are lawfully permitted for foreign vessels exercising innocent passage within the rightful territorial sea of a coastal state," Panda said.

He said a high seas FONOP could involve other activities rather than just passage. It could be a live-fire exercise, activation of control radars or launching of aircraft or drones on board.

The US Department of Defense, however, does not intend to publicize the details of this operation until its Fiscal 2017 Freedom of Navigation report comes due next year, the analyst said.

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