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US destroyer sails near disputed South China Sea island

USS Stethem (DDG-63), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer of the US Navy, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Chain in the South China Sea. BY-NC-ND/Michael Chu

MANILA, Philippines — A US Navy destroyer recently sailed within 12 nautical miles of an island being claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan in the disputed South China Sea.

A Pentagon official confirmed that USS Stethem passed by Triton Island in the Paracel Islands to test the claims of the three countries, according to a report from the US Naval Institute News.

The US Pacific Fleet, however, refused to confirm reports of freedom of navigation operations outside (FONOPs) its yearly report.

"We conduct routine and regular FONOPs, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future. Summaries of these operations are released publicly in the annual DoD Freedom of Navigation Report, and not sooner," US Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Commdr. Matt Knight said in a statement.

In May, the US launched its first freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea since President Donald Trump took office in January.

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

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USS Dewey then sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Mischief Reef or Panganiban, one of China's artificial islands, is also being claimed by the Philippines.

Knight added that all US forces operate in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis. This includes the disputed South China Sea.

"All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe," Knight said.

The US Pacific Fleet stressed that FONOPs are not about making political statements as they have conducted such operations in the past.

"We have a comprehensive Freedom of Navigation Operations program under which US Forces challenge excessive maritime claims across the globe to demonstrate our commitment to uphold the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law," the US Pacific Fleet said.

p>The US has conducted FONOPs challenging excessive claims of 22 coastal states in 2016, following the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which it has yet to ratify.

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