U.S. Destroyer Sails Near Chinese-Held Island

The USS Mustin under way in the Western Pacific, 2017 (USN file image)

Published Mar 23, 2018 8:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Friday, as the U.S. and China sparred over trade and tariffs, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Mustin conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in proximity to Mischief Reef, a Chinese-occupied feature in the Spratly Islands. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for U.S. Pacific Fleet declined to confirm the specific operation. “We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman told Reuters.

The last published instance of a U.S. Navy FONOPS surface patrol near a Chinese claim was a transit by the USS Hopper within 12 nm of Scarborough Shoal, a disputed feature also claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan. 

Beijing objects to the U.S. Navy's presence near its island claims in the South China Sea, and China's defense ministry described the latest FONOPS as "illegal." “The provocative behavior by the U.S. side will only cause the Chinese military to further strengthen building up defense abilities in all areas," the ministry said in a statement. 

In remarks carried by Chinese state media, defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said that the PLA(N) warships CNS Huangshan and CNS Liupanshui were dispatched to warn off the USS Mustin. He asserted that China's sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea is "without question."

"The U.S. should stop making trouble out of nothing," Ren said. "Its provocations would only urge the Chinese military to further enhance our defense capabilities to protect sovereignty and security and regional peace and stability."

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague dismissed China's broad claims to the South China Sea, finding China's assertions of sovereignty to be inconsistent with UNCLOS.

Mischief Reef, a coral atoll in the Spratly Islands, is the site of a 1,400-acre Chinese installation built upon reclaimed land. It features an 8,500-foot runway and is believed to have close-in weapons systems (CIWS) and anti-aircraft guns on site. It is also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Trade dispute

The Mustin's transit near Mischief Reef occurred against the backdrop of a growing trade dispute between China and the United States. On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new set of tariffs that will target $50-60 billion worth of Chinese technology products, or roughly 10 percent of the total value of U.S. imports from China in 2017. The tariffs are intended as a penalty for alleged patterns of intellectual property theft and anti-competitive trade practices. 

On Friday, China announced a small set of retaliatory tariffs targeting about $3 billion in U.S. goods and agricultural exports. "Under no circumstances will China sit idly and allow its legitimate rights and interests to be undermined. We are fully prepared to firmly defend our legitimate interests," said Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a press briefing. 

She added that Trump's trade advisor, Peter Navarro, was "a little bit too arrogant" to suggest that China benefited more from trade relations with the U.S. "In making his remarks, the relevant American individual . . . has apparently miscalculated the situation and underestimated China’s resolve," she said. "The US’ persistence in . . . publishing the so-called findings to pick a trade war will undoubtedly undermine the interests of American consumers, enterprises and the financial market directly."